Chapter 1: Winter
It’s ball-shrinkingly cold in here, and they have to stay the night. Chill air edges its way in around his ankles; the gale outside shifts, sleet battering one side of the building and then the other as if they’re part of some satanic drum kit. A single lamp throws shadows that shiver, and a powerful wind howls above the ghostly chattering of several sets of teeth. The house (such as it is) groans in return.
“When’re they coming…?”
Rumlow groans inwardly.
“Were you not listening? Evac at dawn, assuming the storm’s died off. Either sleep, or keep your mouth shut.”
There’s some grumbling, and the new squad (newbie duty, again) shift around on the pallets that are serving as beds. Rumlow has the only thing actually resembling a bed - it has a mattress, at least. Or, something that started out as a mattress many years prior, and now feels like a pile of upholstered tortoises. His back will kill in the morning. His patience is worn down to a thin membrane, and heaven help anyone who puts any more pressure on -.
“Sir, I’m cold....”
“Do I look like I care!?” He sits up just enough to be intimidating without disturbing the protective cocoon he’s made of the blanket. “Just snuggle for warmth. I’m sure you can manage that.”
Sense wins out over whatever objection they might have had, and there’s more shuffling. But the little bastard doesn’t seem to be able to let it go - once the squad are roughly assembled (in a formation Jack calls ‘gay-panic penguins’), he pipes up again, face appearing from the tangle.
“What’re you gonna do, sir ?”
Rumlow’s jaw tightens. They don’t have the respect like in the old days. Maybe HYDRA’s changed - the newbies have definitely changed. They want to be lords and masters from the minute they step inside; never content with their share of the grunt-work.
Or perhaps he’s just getting old and cranky. He keeps eye contact with Smartass over on the floor, and says “ Soldat .”
The figure in the corner lifts its head.
The Asset moves from the wall, peeling away from the shadows. The newbies tense as one mass of nervous flesh - maybe their commander doesn’t put the fear of god into them, but Hydra’s living weapon certainly does. And that was before they saw him go through a dozen armed guards, three locked doors and a man’s sternum without even pausing for breath. He puts one knee on the end of the makeshift bed and looks down.
“Yeah, c’mon.” Rumlow taps his knuckles to the right of his hip, and the direction is immediately followed; the Asset unfolds onto the surface of the mattress in one movement, like ink soaking into paper. Rumlow throws half the blanket over him - they’ve shed weapons but are still clothed - and then looks back at the newbies.
They’re frozen - figuratively, this time. Pairs of wide eyes gleaming at him in the lamplight, an audience at the circus watching the lion-tamer. The Asset sighs and rests his head on his handler’s shoulder, ignoring the others entirely.
“You ok, big guy?” and the Asset murmurs indistinctly and presses close, the smooth front of the mask directly over his jugular. Perfect. At least he definitely won’t be the first handler to die of hypothermia.
He thinks about chairs and whips and grins at them.
“Perks of the job,” he says, and turns out the light.
It’s taken a lot of work, for what looks like a simple trick. The newbies might be impressed - but they always want to emulate, and that’s the kicker. He would never let them. None of them deserve the things that happen when the Asset decides he doesn’t want you in his personal space.
Cracked sternum, shattered ribs, multiple lung punctures, ruptured spleen, ruptured pericardium….
“You’re reading? Voluntarily? ” Jack poked the stack of files, then gave in to his obvious urge to straighten them before they toppled.
“I’m trying to save my fucking life,and you know it,” Brock retorted, and Jack hadn’t objected to him coming over and curling up on the couch (Jack’s place was in a quieter neighbourhood), poring through the papers - the pre-digitisation ones - or staring at a tablet for hours on end, accepting coffee and food with an air of distraction. This was before the ‘promotion’ was even officially announced.
He’d said something about it being an honour and a privilege. His only thought had been knife through face. Just that, repeating in his head as he shook the hands of falsely-smiling suits. Knife through face.
Chapter 2: Knife Through Face
Most times, their Asset is not allowed to sleep naturally while working. But the alternative is, objectively, a hell of a lot worse.
Everyone hates it when he’s on the drugs. He can last without sleep, but after a few days he starts to flag, lose focus, and they give him the stuff. Nobody’s sure what it is, just a white powder, and he swallows it like an unlucky mule. About ten minutes after that he’s set: not only hyper-awake, but hyper-aggressive. It’s a terrible combination, and Brock loathes it with a passion. After all, it’s how he got this whole thing started.
The Asset is wired to hell and trembling, kneeling on the floor of the van, and even an idiot could spot that something’s seriously wrong. He was stripped of his weapons after the kill - as if that’ll make a difference. His eyes are too manic, even for him, and every time someone coughs he looks at them like he’s about to prescribe the remedy of traumatic lung removal.
None of the team make a sound. Rumlow feels the two beside him rigid with fear. There’s cold sweat in the hollow of his back, under his gear.
The dose can be upped, to keep the Asset awake for even longer, but it’s not recommended. The handler is a veteran, who refuses to listen to such advice and dismisses the whole double-agent business; he’ll hail Hydra loud and clear right up until his dying day. He’s the type that takes mean dogs and makes them meaner, and his tactics have served him well.
The team don’t take his abuse personally, but the Asset does. This time, there’s a growling behind the mask that makes Rumlow’s nuts try and crawl back from whence they came.
Nobody breathes; there’s no air to be had. The handler slaps the Asset, hard, then jerks him back upright by the hair, gets right in his face and asks him the fuck you gonna do about it, what kind of fucking show you think this is, you -.
Rumlow never sees the knife but it’s there with a sick thunk and the handler is falling backward, slow motion. He sprawls out on the hard floor of the van, flopping like a rag doll. His own combat blade is stuck through his face. He’s dead - of course - and the last bit of control they had over the Winter Soldier is gone.
“He’s gonna kill us all,” someone says, as if they’re stating the time.
The Asset stares at the newly-made corpse. He doesn’t normally react to his kills, simply moving on like he just delivered a parcel instead of a fatality, but this one has him caught somewhere in the tangle of his mental process. His metal arm reaches out, draws back. If he touches the body, that makes it real, perhaps.
He looks at them. His face – what they can see of it – is a picture that any guilty child would recognise. I am in SO much trouble .
Rumlow hears a hysterical bite of laughter and realises that he’s the one who made it. He clamps a hand over his own mouth but too late; the Asset’s attention shifts directly to him and this is how he dies, here in this van with a homicidal super-soldier and three Hydra meatheads he barely knows, at least two of whom have wet themselves. It’s not how he wanted to go. He’d always hoped there would be explosions.
“Woah, big guy,” he says quietly. He holds up one hand, the other reaching slowly for the stun stick. It’s worth a try, gambling with the precious few minutes of existence he has left. It’s not like anyone will bear witness to his failure. “It’s ok.”
The Asset glances pointedly back at the body, as if to say what about this? “It’s fine. You did good. Ah… up to this point.”
He doesn’t know if he’s being understood, but he hasn’t been dismembered. The rest of the team are stirring, coming slowly out of their trance.
“Get us back,” he hisses at them. He’s holding the Asset’s gaze and it’s making his stomach into petrified knots. “ Now. ”
They don’t bother with pleasantries. They just go. Only people with the ability to function under abject terror should be on a strike team. If he makes commander - or lives until tomorrow, even - he’ll make sure his own men are just as good.
He can faintly hear them getting onto the radio and reporting handler down , and being told the same thing. Come back, now. Don’t hesitate.
“Hey.” He’s still making eye contact, and somehow still not dead. “You just... stay here. Alright? It’s ok. Everything’s under control.”
The handler is cooling on a slab in the morgue - the knife still lodged squarely between his eyes - when Secretary Pierce calls Rumlow into his office and gives him the dead man’s job.
Chapter 3: Files
Since the late 40s, there have been more than a dozen individuals either wholly or partly responsible for the welfare of the former Sergeant Barnes. Militarised bureaucrats, technical specialists, veterans, high-level secret agents, corporate yes-men: Hydra has evolved, and the handlers have evolved with it - but there is one constant, and that’s the death rate.
The wipes are stronger than what the Soviets used to use, Brock is sure of that (though he doesn’t delve too deep into the tech; the parts he can understand are some creepy shit). And increasingly ineffective; gone are the days when the Asset could be let out for a week at a time, in an urban environment, to track and kill a target and then disappear. He wonders why they’d pass around such a deadly weapon without some kind of instruction manual – but if there is one, he hasn’t seen it.
That being said, it’s not like the weapon is useless. Brock has never seen a more effective fighter, or a more efficient killer. Not one movement is wasted, not one moment left unexploited.
“He’s gonna murder me.” Brock runs his hands through his hair, raking his nails over his scalp in the hope that the pain will help him focus. It doesn’t. “He’s gonna fucking kill me. I’m too young to die. Fuck this.”
“You’re next on the hit list?” Jack watches him pace, apparently unconcerned. He’d barely blinked when his CO showed up at his apartment fairly drunk and prowled like a caged tiger around the living room, before he suggested that they talk on the balcony (no bugs there, aside from the six-legged variety).
“Shut up,” Brock snaps, almost before he can finish. “You know what I mean. He’s had something like fifteen handlers – and he’s killed pretty much all of them. He’s a fucking psycho.”
“Isn’t that the p-.”
“That’s not the point! I’m gonna get fucking eviscerated the next time that motherfucker steps out of cryo! Write me off right now! It’s not a fucking promotion ! I’m on Death Row here, sweetheart! And I can’t do a fucking thing!”
Jack regards him coolly for a long moment (he only ever calls Jack ‘sweetheart’ and though he pretends it’s a mockery, there’s no way Jack hasn’t noticed), enough to make him halt.
“What? You memorising my face so you’ll remember me when I’m gone? If I still have a face by that point. Cos I’m telling you, it ain’t gonna be an open casket. He’s taken faces off. Another guy opened up like a fucking piñata. Another one, back of the head – he shot the whole fucking team , Jack, how am I supposed to -.”
“How d’you know that?”
“Surely it’s classified?”
“Oh, but I’m the chief handler now.” Brock grins, but there’s no humour in it. “I get access to all the files – at least the ones they didn’t lose to the fucking Russians. So I know exactly how my ‘promotion’ is gonna go. Just like the rest of them. Don’t worry, I’ll leave you my apartment. And that bookcase you like.” He always talks a lot when he’s drunk, but rarely says anything important. This time may be the exception. “I’ve got full-page fucking illustrated in glorious technicolour reports about exactly how they managed to get their asses killed by that fucking maniac… .”
“So y’all know what not to do,” Jack says. It stops him mid-rant – another rare occurrence. Jack is a man of few words, and Brock already receives a greater proportion of them than anyone else. Interrupting just isn’t his style.
“Well, if I were to read them all , I guess…” and the idea turns itself over in his head. He grabs Jack’s shoulders. “That’s it. That’s what I’ll do. Hey, I could do it.” He’s smiling again, properly this time. “Don’t get too hopeful, sweetheart – but I might just survive.”
“Shame,” Jack says. “I really did want that bookcase.”
Chapter 4: Eighty-seven
“First mission,” Pierce says, “in your new position.” Naturally, a SHIELD promotion had come along with the other, more clandestine one. Not that it’ll save him, if Pierce decides he isn’t worthy of either. “Any thoughts?”
“It’s an honour, sir,” Rumlow says, although he knows it isn’t what Pierce wants to hear. “Obviously there’s always something new to deal with, but….” He isn’t nearly as good at this as Pierce the orator, the statesman. He hates having to speak in such subtle codes, likes his ciphers to be simple substitution. “I think I’ll manage it, sir.”
“Good.” Pierce nods, and it seems friendly enough. He flips his tablet off its stand and holds it flat, putting his reading glasses on and tapping the screen, his brow furrowed. It makes him look every one of his years (however many there are; it’s not public knowledge), though nobody would dare to say it. “ I hear you’ve been doing your research.”
“Come here, there’s something I’d like to show you.”
It’s a command and not a request, and Rumlow comes to stand beside him, next to the window. Their backs are to the room, the sunlight glinting off the tablet’s screen, the sleeve of Pierce’s suit casting a shadow that’s only for the two of them. Whatever this is, it’s a secret. It feels quite a privilege.
The video feed is black and white and grainy, but not excessively so. Unmarked; no date or time. Maybe from the last twenty or thirty years. The room is grey and anonymous; could be any basement anywhere in the world.
The man or woman in the uniform drops into frame, crashing to the hard floor. There’s no sound, but the impact looks like it hurts. Not that they’d notice; they flip over and start scrambling backwards, using only their arms, trailing dark streams from either leg. A pair of bullet-wounds, if he had to bet on it. Their face is a mask of shock and horror and he can only guess at the words coming from their mouth. They have to stop when their head hits the wall but they look like they want to spider up it like some sort of Exorcist shit. They can’t. Their damaged limbs twitch uselessly.
The Asset follows them, and immediately draws the eye. He’s stalking .
They wave their arms in front and they’re saying - shouting - something. It doesn’t stop him. He reaches out and hauls them upright by the front of their jacket. His hands close around their face and he snaps their neck.
The video shuts off. Rumlow looks sideways at Pierce.
“1987,” Pierce says, quietly.
“So th-,” so close to mentioning a name, a place, but he stops himself in time, clears his throat to speak a little louder. “That’s very useful, sir. I’ll bear it in mind. Thank you.”
What happened to the handler in ‘87 was never really mentioned in the files.
Chapter 5: Timing
“When I joined up - when I joined us - you told me, and I quote: the Winter Soldier is just a myth; the CIA, the FBI, SHIELD, tell each other that shit around the fucking campfire. What’s more likely - a whole bunch of assassins hired for a whole bunch of reasons, or one fucking bulletproof invisible superman? ”
“They picked you for your memory, huh?” Rumlow says, “but well done. I did.”
“So,” Agent Crabbe points at the cryo tank, standing open like the gates of Hel, “what the fuck is this?”
Agent Crabbe is impressed. It’s an odd expression on her severe features, and Rumlow takes a moment to drink it in.
“What?” he says, to bring her attention back. “You surprised that I lied to you?”
She snorts. “No,” - which is also why they picked her - “I’m just surprised that it’s still going. Must be expensive to keep him frozen.”
“Bullshit, you just can’t believe that he’s ours. You’re fucking drooling at the idea of seeing him wreck something. Aren’t you? Talking of which,” he addresses the white-coated technical personnel, swarming around the place like termites, “remember what I fucking said. Warm water.”
“What are you trying to do?”
“Raise his temperature a little faster.” Rumlow shrugs, folds his arms, watches them manhandle the Asset into the shower. “Makes no fucking sense to use cold water. Especially when SHIELD’s paying the heat bill.”
He shivers at first, hands braced against the tiles as they scrub him down. The water shuts off, and he turns to pull a towel from the hands of the nearest tech.
As one, they flinch back, and Rumlow is on the alert. “What’s up?”
“He… doesn’t…” she’s backing away with her hands raised.
“He doesn’t what ?”
The Asset is drying, methodically, between his toes. No signs of impending murder. He finishes up, drops the towel, and seeks out his clothes, starting to pull them on with the same indifference.
“You mean,” Rumlow concludes, “you usually dry him off and jam some pants on him like he’s a Barbie doll? And he stands there and doesn’t do shit?”
There’s a pregnant pause, before someone says “Uhh… yes.”
“Great!” Rumlow shrugs. “We found a way to speed it up. Credit to me. Now what are you waiting for?”
“What if we lose him this time?”
“Shut the fuck up.” Rumlow checks his watch; 3am. Not a single car has passed down this road since they stopped, which is ideal. “ It’s like you don’t trust me or something.”
Rollins snorts from the other side of the vehicle.
“And you can shut up too,” Rumlow tells him, although he hasn’t said a word all day. Strong silent types aren’t attractive per se , but strong and inclined only to say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’, while obeying him faultlessly (with only a little sass)? He can go for that. “He gets here when he gets here.”
“Which is when?”
“You don’t need to know that. What, you want him to only kill the guy halfway so he doesn’t miss the fuckin’ bus?”
Westfahl huffs and tugs on the door handle instead of replying, folding himself into the vehicle and turning off his torch. He doesn’t need to be told not to slam the door. A faint sliver of moonlight is all they have to see by: the markings on the road are the brightest thing around.
“Hey, ah, Commander?” Westfahl points through the windscreen, and Rumlow follows his finger.
“It’ll be a radio tower or something.”
“Are you sure? Because it’s flickering.”
“Well, I dunno. Could be a light on a house, way off. There’s a few farms and shit around here.” He’s highly suspicious, himself, but keeps it casual.
“Spooky,” Westfahl mutters.
“Yeah, sure.” He makes his way round to the back, so he doesn’t have to think about it any more, and stares down the road. When the Asset gets here they probably won’t even see him arrive, but it’s worth watching for movement at least.
The night is almost silent, only the softest of winds. Nothing that could waggle a tree branch in front of a standing light, making it flicker.
“I know this road,” Rollins says softly.
Rumlow doesn’t feel like interrupting, even with sarcasm. If Jack has something to say, he’ll say it. “There’s an abandoned rest stop not too far from here. I remember it closing down, years ago. Had a neon sign out front.”
“Uh-huh.” It becomes obvious that Rollins has nothing else to offer. “So you think some dumbass just decided to light up the sign? For fun?”
“Well that’s great, but that’s their problem and not holy fuck do you ever think about saying hello ?”
The Asset cocks his head. He’s wearing slimline night-vision goggles, which saves having to look at his eyes.
“Ok, fine.” Rumlow sighs, coming down from what he’s pretty sure might have been an aneurysm. “Target eliminated?”
“Yessir,” almost inaudible from behind the mask.
“Good.” He flicks his torch on for a brief second, visually inspecting the Asset. No weapons missing, not covered in blood (or anything else) - a clean job. Too clean, perhaps. Even with a cursory glance, it’s clear that he’s jittery. Too long spent in preparation. Too long out of cryo. They can take him back right now and have him sedated, wiped and frozen - or….
“Hey,” Rumlow says, getting back in. “Let’s check that light out.”
“Are you sure?” Westfahl doesn’t look convinced, but starts the engine anyway.
“Yeah, we’ll just take a look. Might as well, right?”
Rumlow isn’t worried about what they might find - they’re SHIELD’s elite. Even a three-man team can deal with just about anything. And in their case, they have backup.
The Asset looks on with no curiosity at all as they kill the lights and coast to a stop nearby. The sign is clearly visible now, stuttering and sparking but bright against the night sky. A gas station, hollowed-out and dark, and a small row of what used to be stores. Weeds obscure the boundaries of road and field, and line the doorways of buildings crawling with graffiti. Westfahl votes to stay in the car, and Rumlow lets him; he can act as a lookout, or extract them if they find anything truly heinous. He takes a weapon, and Rollins, and instructs the Asset to stay close.
The first thing they find is a car battery, hooked up to the sign with crudely spliced wires. It’s in bad shape, but serves its purpose - and confirms that there’s no power out here. They approach the far side of the compound, treading slowly through the scrub, avoiding litter and debris.The place is lifeless - but Rumlow thinks he can hear something, behind the structures. He halts and glances at Rollins to see if he’s the only one aware of it, before their attention is caught by something else.
It proves him right: the Asset is stalking . Fixated on something beyond the blankly staring storefronts, making his way soft and fluid around the side. Rumlow follows cautiously and crouches at the corner, with Rollins not far behind.
Around a small and smoky fire - which wouldn’t win any points in a Boy Scout camp - a few people sit, passing bottles and joints and who knows what else. One of them is trying to get a speaker working. He kicks it, and curses. A girl hiccups laughter and others join in, although it’s not that funny. They’re absorbed in their little club, and naturally unaware of two fully-armed special forces operatives (and a Cold War assassin) sitting no more than twenty yards away.
Rumlow watches them for a few moments more, then extends his arm and clicks his fingers twice. The Asset freezes in place - he’d been creeping closer, fascinated. Rollins slides in, looking for guidance. Or perhaps he’s just trying not to be in the Asset’s visual field.
“Whatdya think, Jack?” Rumlow breathes, as someone cracks open a beer to a hiss and an enthusiastic ‘woo!’. “Threat to national security?”
He knows without looking that Rollins’ face has tightened. His second is bloodthirsty, but only when it’s called for. The rest of the time, he shows a restraint that can make a man weep - or feel a dirty thrill, knowing how much violence is buried beneath that exterior.
“We should leave ‘em,” Jack murmurs, as expected.
“But look,” the Asset is motionless, but his posture is keen.
“Outside of mission parameters.” It’s said as a certainty, with no emotion.
“What’s a couple more?”
“Brock.” It’s that particular tone reserved for when he’s being an idiot (in Jack’s opinion). “Quit screwin’ around.”
“Ok,” Rumlow says evenly, wondering what he would do without Jack’s presence in his life. “Ok, I hear ya. How about you go back to the car, and give me five minutes? Huh? Five minutes, babe.” If calling him that isn’t enough to make him walk away, nothing will work. “I promise.”
“Alright,” Jack says, with only the barest hint of scepticism. He turns about, trusting Rumlow to watch his back, and creeps away.
Six minutes later, with the Asset secured in the back, Rumlow drops himself into the front seat and tells Westfahl to drive.
Chapter 6: Impress
“He’s been defrosted a little ahead of time,” the guy with the bowtie says - Rumlow hasn’t bothered to learn his name yet, and with luck will never have to. “On the orders of Mr Pierce. So you’ve got a half-hour or so to, ah, get acquainted.”
“Alright,” Rumlow doesn’t give any more than that; not showing off the fact that he’s a little nervous (in spite of his extensive reading list, or maybe because of it). He was expecting to head straight into the field, keyed up and ready to go. They didn’t tell him that he was, technically, half an hour early. “Has the Asset been briefed?”
“He’s ready for you,” Mr Bowtie says, which is too cryptic for Rumlow’s liking. He strides past, resisting the urge to kick the hipster in the shins, and enters the cell.
He already knows they can deactivate the arm with some electronic gadgetry - it’s embedded in the magnetic cuffs, which is handy; clamp them on and they power up automatically. He also knows that the odd shock from a specially-designed collar goes a long way towards keeping a handler safe, and that it’s best not to get bitten. It’s still a surprise to see it all layered together, restraints on restraints so he doesn’t get his dumb ass killed.
He still stays at a safe distance.
“Not field-ready,” he comments.
Mr Bowtie, who followed him in, stands behind him anyway. “This is the standard set-up for a new handler. After some… incidents.”
“Yeah, I know. I read the files,” and the nerd gives a little hm? of surprise. “But if he doesn’t like me? Then I’m guessing the target isn’t the only one that’s gonna be fucked.”
“The track record’s pretty bad, I’ll admit....”
“Ok. Well, let’s hope you haven’t pissed him off too much already.” Rumlow walks in, puts himself directly opposite the bound and furious assassin, and bends down to face level. “Hey there, big guy. Remember me?”
There’s not much recognition in those eyes, but he’s captivated by them. It’s a little less scary when there’s no imminent stabbing - but only a little.
“Well, I’ve got news for you. I’m your new handler. After the old one - what was his name? Bates. After he, you know -.” He mimes the thrust of the knife, pointing his thumb at the Asset’s forehead. “You’re stuck with me now. Ok?”
The Asset looks at Rumlow directly, a wrinkle appearing between his brows as he frowns.
“Fuck you,” he says. It’s muffled by the mask, but clear enough.
Mr Bowtie mutters something about ‘not being very cooperative today’. Rumlow does nothing but shrug. He’d halfway planned out what he wanted to say; how he would seize control of the greatest living weapon known to mankind and let it loose on Hydra’s enemies. Between the unexpected introduction and the scowling defiance, that’s all gone to shit. The previous handler would have lost it already, laid into the Asset with whatever he had to hand. Rumlow isn’t going to do that, either.
“You know what?” he says instead. “Fuck you, too. I’ll be here next time. And the time after that. And you can sass me all you want, but it’ll get you nowhere. You’re our greatest weapon. You wanna act like it? Or you wanna sit here tied up like a little bitch while they shock you so hard in the balls you end up pissing blood? Again?”
That's something else the last guy used to do, routinely. Rumlow reckons that sort of thing would be hard to forget.
“Your choice, big guy. But I am asking you. You gonna behave for me?”
The pause is endless, but he waits it out.
“Yessir,” the Asset says finally. With a touch of contempt, still, but he doesn’t mind that.
“Great.” He reaches out and unfastens the collar, brushing his hands deliberately against the Asset’s head and neck. “I don’t like these. They’re for people who don’t get their hands dirty. You get a shock from me, you’re gonna know it’s coming.”
“Yessir,” and that’s the most enthusiasm he’s heard so far (barely any, but it’s there).
“That’s lesson one. You want lesson two? You behave, and you wait.”
As first impressions go, he thinks it’s a fairly good one. And if not… well, it won’t be his only chance.
Chapter 7: Olga
“You see this?” He taps the file. “Actually, you can’t see this. It’s classified and I’d have to kill you.”
“Uh-huh,” Jack says from the kitchen, paying exactly zero attention to anything except food.
The photo is old, but the eyes of the woman in it are like chips of bright ice in her rough, doughy face. She reminds him of a gym teacher he used to have, except shorter. Her personal diary, in small aggressive handwriting, fills page after page of what remains of the Soviet files - but was never translated. Brock’s written Russian is virtually non-existent, so he’s relying on a computer, plus giving sentences of gibberish to a human with high enough security clearance. The guy is on the hit list already - which Brock knows because he has even higher clearance - so he made up something about deadlines, to get the work done before Mr Translator suffers an ‘accident’. No loose ends.
So far, it’s effective. He’s been able to step into the boots of the first named handler - before the chair, when old-fashioned brainwashing and a ton of dubious substances had to suffice; before Zola got his claws fully into the scheme; before the Soviet arm of HYDRA truly realised what an effective weapon they would make.
She didn’t think much of Zola, calling him ‘some sort of consultant’, and ‘small man probably with no balls’ (which makes Brock laugh out loud). She admired the arm - an early addition, then, to Barnes’s body - but had him trained to fight one-handed, just in case. She saw the early versions of the chair, their easy solution to any pesky disobedience problems, but kept up the routines, the controls, the code-words. She kept him in peak condition, even in the lean years after the war. Look after the weapon, her diary says, and it will look after you .
Her name was Olga, and in the picture she’s looking at the camera and he’s looking at her, with total attention.
It’s hard to imagine Olga ever loving anyone in her short life, but her diary (even clumsily translated) betrays at least a little affection for Barnes - or rather, what they made out of Barnes. The later photos show him closest to the way he looks today, and in many ways even better. He stands out among the weary soldiers bundled in winter gear, sleek and dark and murderous, at ease in his natural habitat.
Brock puts that image aside - he really would love to have it framed and hung somewhere in the vault, just as a reminder - and takes a photo from about the time of the ‘official’ start of Zola’s experiments. Part of a set of clinical images, this shows the left-hand profile. Barnes is skinny in a way his body isn’t built for, bruised in a hundred places, head down and shoulders rounded and looking about a second away from falling to his knees, bearing the marks of every kind of pain. The stump of his missing arm looks raw; there are scratches on his ribs. The stark black and white makes the pallor of his skin positively deathly. On his right arm there would be a needle-track, from where the serum went in: already being re-made, whether he realised it or not. Brock suspects he wasn’t in much of a position to realise anything.
The old file is a yellowed and worn cardboard folder falling apart at the seams; the new one is accessible only on a computer. Brock flicks through to the most recent image. Call it proper documentation, call it nostalgia: he had a new set commissioned, from the same angles as the old ones. (He’d have used the same location, if he knew where it was, but HYDRA still has some secrets from him.) This time they’re in colour, and of a quality which would blow the mind of whoever held the camera back in the 40s. That’s not the only difference, either. The arm shines in the spot where there used to be empty space. He’s taller, maybe about level with Rogers, and wider. His hair is longer, tied back, and he looks straight ahead with an upright spine. Muscle is layered under his skin - still pale, it’s not like they can let him sunbathe - covering his bone structure much more decently.
Brock wants some nerd to invent time travel already, so he can go back and wave this in people’s faces, along with Olga’s diary, and say ‘look, motherfuckers. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but THIS is how you do it. THIS is how you make an assassin-ghost-living-weapon and make him work for you without all the fucking hysterics.’
“Talkin’ to yourself in there?” Jack asks, and Brock jumps and grabs his coffee before it spills.
“Look,” he says; this he can show to Jack. “He’s beautiful, isn’t he?”
“Sure,” Jack responds, putting a plate down on the table and not really looking - but when he does, his eyes linger. The Asset has that effect on people. “He is.” He considers for a long moment, head tilted. It makes the light catch his cheekbones, and Brock has the distinct feeling that there’s more than one beautiful man in his life. “But why do you care so much?”
“Why do I care?” Brock says, incredulous. “Because this right here is one of our greatest weapons! And…” Jack’s steady, unwavering gaze always makes him say more than he means to, “...and I guess I wanna do something . I know there’s the - the end-game. But what are they gonna do with him after that, huh? What are they gonna do with us ? Doesn’t take a fucking genius to work that out, sweetheart. This might be the last thing I do, and I wanna do it well. So fucking sue me.”
“You hoping you’ll get to keep him in the end?”
“What? Fuck no.” He swallows most of his coffee in one smooth movement and waves it at Jack. “I’ve got one psycho around the house, I don’t need another one.”
Jack, to his credit, just smirks and lets their fingers touch as he takes the cup.
Chapter 8: Rio
“If you’re gonna try anything of that nature,” Pierce tells him (with a look that says you and me both, my friend, even though they will never be anything resembling friends), “a word of advice… keep the muzzle on.”
A basement in Rio de Janeiro, stifling and airless under buzzing lights; a single ceiling fan doing fuck-all between the rafters. A drug lord, apparently pissing off Hydra enough to warrant a special visit, the type that ended with a bullet between the eyes. But it was so easy - the guy lived in a huge villa out in the sticks and his bodyguards apparently weren’t paid enough to care - and there’s a sense of anticlimax, of restlessness in the furnace heat. They’ll be shipped off tomorrow over the border, and split so the ‘SHIELD’ guys can go back in and join the other mission. They’ll find the target dead already, and pretend to be surprised.
The team know better than to screw around, even if feeling cheated, so once they’re in safe territory they head out. They won’t be back for a while, so it’s just Brock, and the one member of the squad who can’t be unleashed on an unsuspecting populace.
Brock works the Asset, paces him out until he’s panting, sheened with a racehorse sweat. They walk after that, barefoot on the dusty floor, slow and steady to cool off a little. He calms down, losing the pent-up energy, and is slack and compliant by the time they go upstairs to shower (tepid, because he’ll react to sudden cold water). Once the sun goes down the air freshens mercifully and Brock is tempted to follow the team to wherever they went, but he can’t. So he decides to let him sleep on the bed.
They lie side by side and he slips into uneasy half-dreams of something he has to do, something he forgot , important - and jolts awake because keep the muzzle on and those fucking teeth are within inches of his throat and there’s a whole catalogue of just that sort of messy, painful end.
The Asset barely stirs as he’s muzzled again, too drowsy to protest. Brock lies back, chest pounding, dizzy with the near miss. It takes him a long hour to fall asleep again.
Chapter 9: Alterations
“Number one, it'll save three whole operatives on the journey itself - we'll only need one, as a backup. Whichever route our friend takes, he'll be followed. Number two, it'll save on surveillance along the way. N-.”
“What if he loses the target?”
Brock is used to being interrupted by Pierce - and therefore not snapping back at him - and can look him right in the eye (easier with Fury) and say:
“I like your confidence, Agent,” and really, when has Brock shown him anything else? “But can I ask - what makes you so sure?” He squints a little, coming up just short of actually wagging his finger. Brock didn’t expect the fucking inquisition, but neatly avoids actually saying that out loud.
“Because I’ve seen what he can do, and I know he can do this. The Russian files talk about this kind of thing all the....”
“That was a long time ago.”
“There’s no reason he should have lost his potential. Sir.”
“Hm.” Pierce purses his lips and glances down; still doesn’t believe him, but is willing to let him figure out his own mistakes. It irritates Brock, because he’s never tried to dodge responsibility for a fuck-up - and this won’t be a fuck-up. “I hear you’ve made some alterations to the standard procedure.”
“If that’s where you want to start.” So he’s going to waste Brock’s time with making him prove his competence (or lack of it). Brilliant.
“It was badly photocopied,” Brock says carefully, trying to subtly unclench his jaw and loosen his shoulders, and not turn this into a battle he can’t win. “From what looks like an exercise book. Long story short - it’s a three, not an eight.” Dumbass, was what he’d added when originally pointing that out, but it’s hardly appropriate here. “And, following that, he’s a lot more functional after the procedure. It takes out anything he’s managed to remember without turning him into a vegetable.”
“I see,” although he doesn’t; Pierce has never dealt with their Asset barely cognisant, blank and glassy-eyed like a stuffed animal and about as capable. It can take an hour or more for him to recover, shuddering and sobbing on the floor of the cell. That’s a thing of the past, because it was a three, and not an eight. “And the care changes?”
So they’re going in all the way. “Put it this way: warm water? Cuts down the prep time by half. Letting him sleep a little? Reduces the time he spends awake out of cryo, therefore gives us more leeway before he takes someone’s head off - someone he’s not meant to kill, I mean.”
“But, for a weapon - is this really…?” Pierce spreads his hands, and Brock knows then for certain that his trusted superior, SHIELD’s secretary and Hydra’s most effective agent, really does not understand. He’s held weapons, obviously, and used them, to great effect. But he’s probably never cared much for maintenance.
So Brock chooses his next statement carefully. “It used to take them two hours from out of cryo to mission-ready, sometimes more. I have that down to forty-five minutes.”
“Uh-huh,” Pierce says as if he’s barely interested, but Brock sees the eyebrow twitch.
“Mission failures so far stand at zero . Collateral damage, also at zero. And number of agents taken out while he’s active? Two.” He shrugs. “One of them got in his way during training… and the other one tried to slap his ass.”
“Quite right,” Pierce nods. “We shouldn’t be tolerating such behaviour.” Like he wouldn’t try it himself, given half the chance. “It looks like you have the situation in hand.” And, in case Brock was in danger of taking his praise too seriously, “We’ll have to see what happens.”
Chapter 10: Home Comforts
There’s a TV that’s probably bigger than the floor space of his bathroom at home, but he can’t bring himself to be interested in it. Sure, the old guy probably has a thousand and one channels (and watches about four of them, five max.), but he doesn’t want the background noise of whatever crap might be on. The crackling of the seal of the bottle seems far too loud as he takes a drink of water. He wants a beer, from the fridge as cavernous as the TV is huge; knows that there’s a tempting stack in there, translucent and chilled… but it would be a risk. He rubs the back of his neck. The hairs there haven’t come down since he glanced at the clock and, in his mind, heard the crack of the shot that ended the target. The starting pistol of the one-man marathon that ends here, with this house. With him.
He’d much rather have been on the actual mission, even as cleanup. It’s to do with the fact that he’s living two lives. Soon, that might change. First, he has to wait.
It’s a still night, mild for the time of year. Like a lot of rich people, Pierce seems to have built his house entirely out of glass and fancy stone: too many windows to watch; too much light spilling out unfettered into the manicured gardens around. Brock feels like a beacon. In a way that’s what he’s meant to be. He doesn’t have to like it, though.
He gets up, on impulse, and creeps to the unnecessarily complicated panel of light switches on the far wall, moving on cat’s feet. He turns the lights down as low as they’ll go; a couple of shades above darkness, with the shadows towering. The fireplace - real flames but no logs and shut behind more glass, as if a man like Pierce refuses anything as pedestrian as heat - is now the brightest thing in the room. He stands and watches it for a while. The dancing flames aren’t particularly comforting, robbed of their warmth and noise. But it’s something to watch, while the corners of his eyes are firmly fixed on the darkening lawn.
There’s a flicker of movement outside.
His breath catches a little, and he swiftly puts himself to one side of the window, trying to blend in with the curtains. His eyes take a while to adjust, but there doesn’t seem to be anything around. It’s a powerful illusion - a ghost, after all, is meant to be only seen in glimpses - and he’s as impressed as always.
Then he focuses away from the garden and onto his own reflection, and nearly dies of a heart attack.
“How did you get - how did -?”
He’s glad that nobody else can hear the pitch of his voice (akin to a chipmunk who smoked twenty a day for most of its teenage years), except this dark and dangerous ghost who somehow walked right up behind him and made his finely-honed instincts count for nothing. “Uh… how did it go?”
“Target number one eliminated.”
“Great, well done.” It’s not a very authoritative thing to say, but he’s still recovering. The smell of blood and wet dog hits him, overpowering the soft nasal pleasantries of whatever Pierce’s cleaner must use on the fabrics, and it forces him to focus. The very solid-looking ghost in front of him also looks like he went through a slaughterhouse, a building site and a river, not necessarily in that order. “Christ, you stink. The guy live in a swamp or something?”
“Alright, so you don’t feel like talking. You still gotta shower, though. Turn around. Bathroom’s through the kitchen, down the corridor, on your right. And leave your fucking weapons outside this time. Understood?”
A nod, and he leaves. Brock takes a minute to close all the curtains (as if there could be anything worse lurking in the night) and secure the doors, and is pleased to note that he at least seems to have wiped his feet before coming in.
The landing outside the bathroom is a miniature armoury. The door is open - privacy being something for people, not living weapons - and the last bits of gear are joining the pile on the floor as Brock steps inside. He feels a lot more like a commander, now he’s got over his cardiac arrest and established that everything is as it should be.
He reaches up to take off the mask, and the Asset leans into it as always. The lower half of his face is about the cleanest part of him.
“Well, look at that,” Brock says. “There’s an assassin under all this.” He runs his fingers through damp, filthy hair. “Come on. In the shower, big guy. It’s one of those fancy ones - feels like you’re being pissed on by a hundred clouds at once.”
There’s no knowing how functional he might be, so he should be supervised at times like these. Brock is pretty sure that the little changes they’ve made to the pre and post-cryo routines have eliminated most of the complete breakdowns - but he’s still prepared to use it as an excuse to shower with the finest piece of American beef this side of wherever Rogers is right now. He strips down to his underwear and steps under the water.
“You look like a drowned fucking rat, you know that?” He dares to turn his back, and is rewarded by keeping all of his limbs. “Hands on the wall. I’m gonna do your hair.”
He’s not an expert - Pritchard actually laughed at him the first time he tried - but it’s not like the Asset will complain about soap in the eyes. Pritchard also gave him a half-hour lecture on conditioner, which he didn’t listen to until she pulled out the bottle. Her mouth said that she’d tried it at home, didn’t like it and didn’t want it to go to waste because this shit is expensive, but her eyes told Brock that if he dared to ask any more questions, he’d meet with a very sticky end.
Pierce has expensive stuff in his shower, too. Brock doesn’t know and doesn’t care why some of these things are supposed to be better than others, and neither does his current companion.
The Asset pulls his head out of the way of the water. Brock takes a fistful of his hair and repeats “Hands on the wall ,” guiding him back under. “Don’t make me ask again.”
He does the wash - and the conditioner - as quickly as possible. Grime and blood swirl down the drain. He takes a sponge and starts on skin, until his hand is grabbed.
“Fine, whatever - you do it.” It’s actually a good sign; if he has enough presence of mind to bathe himself, then it means that the techs are taking Brock’s advice for once. “Just let me look at you.”
It’s always worth inspecting to see if any of the blood is the Asset’s own, rather than some poor bastard who got in the way. He and Cap both can take quite a few bullets - not to mention assorted cuts, scrapes and broken bones - without making any sort of fuss.
“Ok, big guy - you’re clean. Unless you’ve got some internals you wanna tell me about?”
“No injuries to report, sir.”
“I don’t even wanna
the mess you made at the job site.”
“There were more of them than we planned for, sir.”
“Huh. But not any more, right?”
“Not any more.”
“Good work. Alright, you stay in here a bit longer if you want. I’ll deal with your gear.” He steps out, resisting the urge to slap the guy on the ass, and pokes the pile on the floor with his foot.
Pierce never really appears to care how they’re presented to him, but Brock has noticed the signs of approval whenever the team are at least showered and changed, instead of ruining the carpets with field debris. The smell of old sweat, and clotted blood that used to come with the Asset’s presence is a thing of the past. Brock can play housemaid sometimes, if that’s what it takes.
Once he’s collected their fresh clothes, he returns to find the Asset sitting on the floor in the bedroom, cleaning his weapons meticulously, still dressed in precisely nothing.
“Hey.” Brock throws shorts at him. “Put some fucking underpants on. This isn’t a nudist colony. And don’t roll your fucking eyes at me either - I saw that.”
The Asset mutters something about proper maintenance.
“You not walking around butt-ass naked is proper fucking maintenance. Don’t get smart with me, soldier. You know, I was planning to let you sleep without this.”
He holds up the mask, dangling it on one finger. It’s quite the persuasive argument; almost impossible to lie down for too long in it without being stifled, and completely impossible to stay in one position all night. Sitting up is easier - and even then, it digs into his throat if he lowers his head. The little wheezing noises it produces are almost funny, if you consider that sort of thing funny.
“Yessir.” He goes back to cleaning, dull and silent.
“Good.” Brock lets him carry on, and doesn’t mention the fact that he’ll keep the mask off anyway. Call it a reward, for a job well done.
Waking up alone isn’t unusual (Jack has this thing about sharing; he just can’t sleep with someone next to him) but this time Brock is instantly worried. There’s no Jack, no couch, nothing but the view of a multi-million-dollar landscaped estate. The Asset is gone.
A cold sweat breaks out along his spine, instinctive although he was expecting this to happen at some point. It could end very badly for both of them. He pulls on some more clothes and takes a weapon - carefully, patiently, because if his quarry has escaped already he'll never be able to keep up and the next call will be to Pierce - and starts to silently sweep the house.
He's had long enough to plan out what to do. The Asset has been out of the freezer for far too long, according to the techs, and Pierce obviously agrees - but Brock doesn’t. He hasn’t survived this many years for nothing.
The pool is lit from within with a rich glow that mottles a wide sweep of the ceiling, and a few hidden spotlights around the room take care of the rest. It's not bright by any means, but more than enough, warm and opulent. The dark lump on the edge is all he needs to see.
"You ok, big guy?" The Asset already knows he's here, but hasn't moved. This is either good or terrible.
He's sitting in shorts and a tank top, the same clothes he slept in, feet dangling in the water. His right hand is on the edge, and his left is cradled in his lap. Brock circles around and strolls along the other side of the pool. Enough distance between them that, if something happens, there’ll be half a chance to react.
"Where are we?" He sounds like a man in a dream. (Although when he actually talks in his sleep, it's always sharp and lucid.)
"Can't tell you that, big guy. It's classified."
He nods silently, and stirs the water with his feet.
"Who's the man in the photos?"
"Which one?" But Brock knows full well; there's only one guy who appears in every frame in the house, no matter who the other subjects might be - and many of them are impressively famous, or famously impressive. "That's Secretary Pierce. Remember him?"
"No sir." He isn't worried about it; nobody expects him to remember. "He doesn't look like a secretary."
"Secretary General. Of... our organisation. That guy's nobody's PA. You won't find him sharpening pencils."
"Changing typewriter ribbons," the Asset agrees. It's intriguing, sometimes, how he can use new technology without retaining knowledge of its existence. He lived an analogue life, him and Rogers. And while Cap has tackled head-on this new era of poking screens and pressing buttons, sending invisible data to invisible people, the Asset never gets the chance. His memories of a brave new world are wiped as surely and often as Brock's internet history. "I don't know him. I don't know this house."
"Uh-huh." The quiet, pensive tone is a good sign, from Brock's perspective. He's confused enough to be thoughtful, out of hunter mode, but not confused enough to be violent. "What about me? You know me?"
"Yessir." That alone is more than he'd hoped for. "Commander."
He doesn't recall any name, almost never does, but still knows him on some fundamental level. There's that flicker of recognition, however brief, every time.
"That's great." Brock stands over at the other side of the pool, lets the silence sit, and watches him. The reflections of the water turn pale skin to dancing silver. The lighter they are on conversation, the more time he has to think up answers to whatever questions the Asset might have. Brock isn't a patient man, but nor is he quick with the rhetoric like Pierce. He knows when to take it slowly.
"Are we the only ones here?"
Brock sees no reason to lie to him, especially because he probably already knows the answer. He's gotten very good, over the years, at sitting on information he isn't supposed to know - mainly due to the fact he never opens his mouth. People assume he's blind and deaf as well. With some primeval instinct (and a lot of practise), Brock can sense when he's paying attention. It's not a pleasant feeling. But it's useful.
"Armed guards around the perimeter. We're the only ones inside this building."
For anyone else, such a setup would be suicide. For Brock, that might still be true, though he's willing to take the chance.
"Why are we here?"
"Classified. Sorry, buddy."
The Asset looks up sharply, the way you do when you think you hear someone call your name. A frown appears, a wrinkle between his eyes that passes quickly, like a cloud on a windy day. (If it stays, that's when Brock starts to worry.)
“This guy’s got a fuckin’ pool in his fuckin’ house,” he mutters quietly, and Brock bites his tongue on a laugh. This, quite likely, sounds a lot like the man Rogers knew. “Is he gonna be back soon?”
“I can’t tell you that.” Pierce was happy to put them up, in what’s probably the safest place imaginable, but deliberately left them alone. He doesn’t want to be anywhere near what he sees as a cross between a loaded gun and an angry raccoon. “We’ll be here until it’s possible to resume mission schedule.”
“One target, level 4, construction work diversion at classified location, eliminate by road traffic accident setup and extract,” the Asset intones, without prompting. He’s gotten a lot better at remembering who he’s supposed to kill. No avoidable casualties for the last few missions, and Brock is entirely content to take the credit for that.
“Exactly. Well done.”
“Can we eat the food outta the refrigerator?”
It makes Brock smile, because that’s the first thing he thought of too. And not just because super-soldiers seem to be almost constantly hungry. “Why, you want it?”
He casts his eyes back down. “No sir.” Weapons do not want. He would starve nearly to death before admitting it - and then kill Brock and anyone else in the way, to keep himself alive. He’s not allowed to desire anything, but he’s not expendable either.
“Ok. Say, if we do have a look in there - and I get you something to eat - will you come back to bed?” It sounds like an invitation, but it’s an ultimatum. Obey me and we’ll get a good night’s sleep. Refuse and you’ll sit there until the sun comes up.
“Yes sir.” It’s the response he wanted, and expected. And Pierce can probably afford to have the kitchen cleaned out.
Chapter 11: Charmer
“It’s like a snake,” Westfahl blurts out abruptly, watching them.
“It’s like - I was in Goa and I saw this woman, she had a snake. Like, a snake-charmer. She had this skirt, and she was dancing - the snake would hit the skirt, but it never bit her. And she leant over and she sort of -” he leans in, to illustrate, “she kissed the snake, on its head. And it didn’t bite her.”
“I’m guessing you were on a lot of drugs at this point,” Mercer says, under her breath.
Rumlow laughs out loud, folds his hands behind his back, and leans over and kisses the Asset’s forehead. They all pretend not to tense in anticipation when he does it.
“You can only do that because he’s on a lot of drugs.”
Looking up - keeping one eye on the Asset - Rumlow glares at Murphy. “Think again, chucklefuck. And you’ve got yogurt on your nose, or whatever that shit is.”
“It’s soya,” Murphy mutters, which Rumlow knows already, because he once took some by mistake from the office fridge (telling Murphy he stole it deliberately and it was terrible, although neither of those things were true and he’s considering doing it again).
“Do I look like I care? Anyway, you’re wrong. This little guy,” he takes hold of the Asset’s face in both hands, noting that they all flinch, “is on nothing but Stark’s patented super-serum.”
“Did he ever patent it?”
“Howard Stark?” Mercer says, loud and incredulous. “Of course he fucking patented that shit; he could rule the fucking world with any of the stuff he did. But he chose to make a fuckload of money instead.”
“And be a bad father,” someone else chimes in, “don’t forget that.”
They laugh, because they can. Nobody here needs to be left out of the joke. Rumlow grins, even though he’s just heard something that made his scalp prickle all over.
“What?” he asks, while the team are distracted in their assassination of Howard Stark’s character.
“Level 5, eliminate and secure… road… secure payload….” It’s almost inaudible through the mask - but not quite.
“Ok.” He slides his hands down to the Asset’s arms, leaning over him, trying to ignore thoughts of Westfahl’s snake - still striking, even without venom. “Ok, shh.”
The wandering eyes of the Asset lock onto his, and he wishes for a tech crew and a bank vault, but it’s just the two of them and an oblivious squad. At least the muttering has stopped.
“Listen here, soldier.” Rumlow wills himself not to put the pieces together, although it’s always helpful to know where Barnes is stranded in time. It’s the kind of thing that’s quite a strain on the grey matter: it must be, since he’s thinking of the poor bastard as Barnes. “You’re saying things I do not need to hear. Whatever mission that was -” the early 90s, probably “- is classified. Understood?”
He’s not Pierce, so he can’t make an inspiring speech: short and field-ready will have to do.
“Yessir.” The Asset nods, and looks at where his commander’s hands are secured a little too tightly on both of his wrists. Rumlow lets out a breath that got stuck in his chest.
“And don’t tell anyone about this.” He hardens his tone. “Say another word without my express permission, and I will not hesitate to -.” He hesitates. “Just keep your fucking mouth shut, ok?”
Now, the silence of the wreckage is overwhelming. The jet has settled far enough away that the engines are barely audible, a dark whisper beyond the tree line where the sun sank just under an hour ago. Handheld beams are the only light, bobbing and waving over bits of crumbled masonry.
“They had it rigged to blow?” Crabbe asks, a heavily rhetorical question at this point. Rumlow just nods, because he doesn’t trust himself to speak. There are just three of them here - Rollins is pacing somewhere around the perimeter - plus the pilot waiting for them to return. If they don’t come back with what they’re meant to, they might as well not come back at all.
Rumlow doesn’t want to come back, if not with the weapon. He couldn’t bear it. He sweeps the tracker over what used to be a hallway, and it makes an encouraging noise.
“Here,” he says, but it comes out as a croak. He tries again. “Here!”
Scrambling over a fallen beam, he finds a gap. Something in it flashes silver when the torchlight hits. Crabbe might be watching him, bringing up the rear, but he doesn’t care as he drops to his knees and seizes it and of course it’s cold, ice cold - but it crushes his hand right away and he might be in danger of crying if his face wasn’t numb with hope and fear.
“Hey, it’s me.” He has to extract his fingers eventually, so they won’t be broken. “Let go. Let. Go .”
Crabbe is already working on it, calling Rollins back. They don’t have much at their disposal - or much in the way of time - but they can chip away at the collapsed bits of building and at least make enough room to drag a body out.
“Get up,” Rumlow says, the urgency making his tone more severe than intended. “Now.”
It doesn’t happen. The Asset tries - pushing up slowly from the dusty ground, onto his knees, planting a metal fist on the floor to rise - but he can’t. He slumps back down and stares at their boots, unseeing. They can hear his breathing clearly.
“ Soldier . Look at me.”
It’s still a shock, when he does; the pain and fear in his eyes makes Rumlow pause. He’s scared and hurt and this is when he might lash out at them, if he had the strength left. It doesn’t look like he does. He loses focus again and his back bows, hair falling over his face.
“Doesn’t look too good,” Rollins mutters.
“Fuck.” Rumlow doesn’t try anything else, just hauls the Asset up and jams a shoulder into his ribs, taking his weight with a grunt. Crabbe stows her weapon and joins them on the other side. “C’mon.” Rollins leads the way back to the jet. At least they’ve done what they came here to do.
The floor shudders with takeoff, and Rumlow hunches over to try and get an assessment and nearly gets a fist to the face for his troubles, but deflects it like a swatted fly. That alone saddens him even more.
“Hey, big guy.” He tries to be reassuring. The circumstances might be bad, but at least nobody’s going to argue. “You had a building fall on you. I’m sure you can walk it off.” He ignores further attempts to do him injury and pulls the mask away.
The Asset’s mouth and nose are streaming blood; he swallows hard and gasps for breath for a few long seconds that have Brock tensing with worry - as if he isn’t tense enough already. He used to imagine the things that Pierce would do to him if he let their prize assassin get harmed (terrible things, ending in his slow and untimely death): right now, he’s more concerned about the loss he’d feel for himself. The same loss, incidentally, that made Captain America fly a plane into the ocean. Mere torture and execution would pale in comparison to that.
A cold grip lands on him, bringing back his focus. They’re headed for base, and for medical attention, and one healthy dose of Stark’s magic plus decades of training - most recently under his command - have made Barnes a hundred times tougher than he used to be. They’ve seen Rogers survive worse.
“Ok, let’s see,” he says softly, and runs one hand through hair matted with brick dust, using the other to start on the fastenings of the jacket. It’s like lifting the wing cases of a beetle, although no wings are underneath, just a patchwork of bruises already seeping to the surface. “Jesus fuck.”
Crabbe takes a cursory look. “Maybe there’s something broken in there, sir.”
He nearly snaps at her, avoiding it only because he agrees. “Yeah, I know. Probably.” There’s not much point in exploring further. He takes the Asset’s flesh hand instead, almost without realising, blood on their fingers smearing at the touch. “I mean, there’s two ways this could go. And in one of them, we’re all dog meat.”
“Lemme guess,” Rollins says distantly. “That’s not the one we want.”
“No shit,” Brock retorts, but without any force behind it.
The Asset nods briefly in agreement. His eyes close: shutting down, saving energy. His skin is damp, but warm - not yet in shock, although it might not be far away.
“Just relax,” Brock says redundantly. “If you start to crash now, there’s fuck-all we can do for you. At least wait till we get back.”
The hand on his squeezes gently in acknowledgement.
It’s 6am, but he’s still here. At least he’s managed to secure a stool, by throwing one of the tech nerds off it. He braces his back against the cold wall and cups his coffee in both hands - Jack managed to find some for him before leaving - and watches, and waits.
On the few occasions that Rogers gets injured this badly, he’s so pretty in his suffering that it’s always a struggle not to beat him up again. No such dilemma here. Even a super-human won’t heal overnight - it’ll take a day or two for the soft stuff and maybe a week for the bones, and back into cryo after that. Captain America gets shiny hospitals, sunlit rooms and cute nurses tucking him in. All there is in this place - a cell, really, in the tunnels below the bank - is a camp bed and a very tired handler, with some semi-interested night-shift techs milling around outside.
Stowing the coffee on the floor under his seat, Brock checks his phone. A missed call, and a follow-up text, because he’s not in the gym and he and Cap have a routine going. If he hurries now, he could still make it. A little late - caught up in SHIELD business, he could tell any bullshit story he wanted - but still plenty of time, and the added bonus of Rogers being antsy and impatient, ready to make mistakes. Mistakes that Brock could punish him for. In the ring, and then again in the showers afterwards, where it’s impossible to resist the heat coming off his well-worked body and the starving look in his eyes, his vulnerability and his need .
The body on the bed stirs a little, metal fingers flexing with a whir. Brock replies to Rogers, saying he can’t make it today.
Chapter 12: Develop
“He took something from the job site, apparently,” Rollins says, deadpan, leaning against the wall even as the other agent smacks her hands against it in mindless rage.
“He says he didn’t!” Crabbe spits, “But he’s lying! This is what happens when you’re not here!”
“So fucking sue me,” Rumlow snaps back. He would have been there - wanted to be there - but they’re still living two lives. “I can’t be in two places at once.”
“You mean you can’t be here and have your tongue up Rogers’ ass!” Crabbe almost shouts, but catches it halfway and splutters on the words. She snorts, steadies herself, tucks a strand of hair back into her bun. Her meaty fists unclench, slowly, deliberately. Rumlow waits her out. “I’m sorry, Commander.”
“Apology accepted,” Rumlow says; he expects nothing less. “Now, what did he take?”
“Some scrap of paper,” Crabbe tells him, and Rollins nods. “Maybe a drawing, a photograph… I’m not sure. He’s hiding it in his gear somewhere. I wanna find out where, but….”
“But with takeoff in an hour, the techs say that’s too short notice to get him stripped down,” Rumlow finishes. “I got you. They’re all fucking cowards here.”
That, at least, seems to cheer her up a little. “We can’t send in the cowards. So what do we do?”
“Go and get yourself prepped for flying. Leave it to me.”
There aren’t holding cells here; out in the sticks, they have to make do with an ageing and empty conference room. Brock almost prefers the missile bunkers to this. The fluorescent lighting gets on his nerves and the thin carpet tiles are curled into trip hazards. He pulls a chair off one of the stacks at the side of the room, the abused plastic groaning. It’s something to do while he checks out the Asset. There doesn’t seem to be anything amiss.
He thumps the chair down on the floor and barks out “On your knees! Hands on your head.”
Compliance is instant. “So,” Brock says, hands on the back of the chair, leaning over it. He isn’t planning to sit. “I hear you managed to waste a nice Level 3 in his own apartment.”
“Yessir. Target eliminated, sir.”
“Good. But you know what’s not so good?” His charms won’t work here, but neither will straightforward bullying: he’ll have to feel his way, using what he knows. He lets the question hang there, until it’s abundantly clear that it is, in fact, a question.
“No sir?” There’s something in his eyes that gives it away; he knows Brock might be angry, and that the source of it might be him.
“Retaining evidence. Removing something from an otherwise-uncompromised job site that should’ve stayed right where it was. You understand?”
“Yessir.” He doesn’t volunteer information, but he also doesn’t meet Brock’s gaze. He can’t do it and lie at the same time. The fear always shows through. So he gives himself away in other, less painful ways.
“I’m gonna ask you. Is that something you’ve done?”
“No.” The word is bitten off. Too quick.
Brock rounds the chair and smacks him across the face. He sags a little from his kneeling position, head to the side for a second.
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I promise I’ll be good,” he says automatically - some previous handler, maybe Bates, could be placated with that, no matter the infraction - but it’s not good enough for Brock.
“I don’t give a fuck about that. Let’s be real here - I know you took something from that apartment. Someone saw you do it,” doubtful that he remembers who Agent Crabbe is, but Brock won’t give him a reason to bear a dangerous grudge, “and you know you shouldn’t have done it. So give it up.”
He shakes his head, minutely. This is why they called Brock down; simply asking, or ordering, or threatening, doesn’t seem to be enough.
“Why? You wanna know what’ll happen if you don’t?”
Brock can think of a whole host of things to do to him. Beat him and shock him, until he gives in to make the pain stop. Take him onto the plane, open the doors a couple miles up, threaten to throw him out. Force him to strip in front of the rest of the team and let them search him as roughly as they want. But none of it would be a surprise to him. That much is clear - he expects it, endures it, forgets it, only to expect it all over again.
“No, I guess not. So why are you lying to me? You know you don’t need to do that.” Brock reaches out slowly and takes hold of his chin, the mask smooth and warm. “I just wanna see it, ok. Is that too much to ask? Huh?”
He rocks back on his feet, takes his hands away; makes it clear that he’s not intending to touch. The Asset waits for a while, watching him closely - then, in a move that has Brock internally rejoicing, reaches into his boot and carefully prises out a folded scrap of thick, glossy paper.
“It’s a photograph, huh? What’s it of?” He still doesn’t approach, doesn’t touch, folds his hands behind his back.
The picture is duly unfolded. The target smiles out from the surface, face scarred by a fold line, his partner similarly creased. The only one left flat is his son. The boy must be a teenager here; slim and blond and smiling with his parents. He might still be smiling now. He’s the one that ordered the hit on them, after all.
“Ok, that’s what it is. So why did you take it?”
“I don’t know.”
Not the answer Brock was expecting. It doesn’t seem like a lie, either. “You don’t know?”
Brock stares at the picture, and then hears Rogers in his head laughing and no, really! I’m that little punk right there! He nods, and says “Well, ain’t that a mystery.”
The Asset agrees. He kneels on the carpet, settles himself better on his folded legs. His shoulders come down a little - Brock hasn’t told him to maintain position, so that’s fair - and he gazes off to the side.
“You don’t know who this is,” Brock reminds him, “and you don’t know why you took it. Probably seemed like a good idea, right? In the moment. So can I have it?”
He slowly extends a hand (the flesh one). Brock doesn’t snatch, just takes the photo carefully. “Thank you.”
That makes him frown slightly, his eyes growing wary. Being asked, and being thanked, are still new.
“I’m glad you’re listening to me.” Brock pushes the point a little. “Makes it a lot easier for everybody. Now, I’m gonna have to take this and get rid of it - but we’ll keep that between us, right? Nobody has to know.” He’ll talk to Agent Crabbe; she’ll understand. He looks at his watch. “Forty-five minutes to prep for takeoff. Anything else you wanna tell me about?”
“No sir.” The Asset looks so relieved, it’s almost enough to make him laugh out loud.
Chapter 13: Dangerous Game
Demonstrations of loyalty are nothing new – it’s what HYDRA rely on, to weed out troublemakers and bind the rest of them together – but the Asset is obedient in ways that seem a little extreme, even for them.
Case in point: Switzerland, some time in the early 70s. He creeps up to a chalet owned by the son of an eminent political figure, enters through the back door, and silently dispatches the target and two guests. The target’s wife enters the kitchen, sees the bodies of her husband and friends, and doesn’t have time to scream.
No evidence is left at the crime scene. It’s one of the quietest, most covert operations to date. At the time, the only people who know are a couple of the elite, the Asset (as far as he knows anything), and the tac team.
The rendezvous location is kept secret, for obvious reasons. The Asset leads the team of five operatives there like a homing pigeon. It’s in the forest, halfway up a hill, virtually inaccessible in the snow.
They’re expecting extraction. What they get is five holes in the ground.
None of them fought, it seems. Either they were bound by their devotion to HYDRA, or – more likely – they were cold and tired and even all of them at once couldn’t take the Asset on and hope to win.
He continues, on foot, another seventeen miles to the actual extraction point, and hands over their dog tags to his masters.
Brock always makes a point of being there earlier than early - fuck the half hour that Healy tries to impose on him. He’s there, full gear, arms folded, as they open the cryo tank, its door drawing back with a hiss like a surfacing submarine and the cold, cold clouds rolling out across the floor around their feet and the body inside held up by wires like a marionette, still virtually dead.
“There’s our Sleeping Beauty,” Pritchard says, and Brock snorts.
“He looks like a bag of peas,” because he can’t not make fun of her, even as they’re disconnecting the pipelines one by one and letting the heat seep in, thawing their Asset until his joints unstick and his lungs inflate and he can be plucked from the tank like a creature from its shell.
Brock catches him. It’s standard procedure by now - someone has to do it, and it might as well be the handler; who better to stop the Fist of Hydra faceplanting onto the concrete? His legs do some of the work but he’s still heavy - Brock groans a little under the weight and the deathly chill of his skin. He can grip at least, arms slung around Brock’s shoulders (long-sleeved shirts compulsory here; the metal arm gives nasty freezer burns). It’s a simple matter to get him moving, stumbling but not losing momentum, push him into the chair and let him be wiped. It hurts - how could it not, with how he screams? - but he’s not quite awake or aware and his recovery will be far quicker. Brock can step in as soon as it’s over and take his face in both hands and meet his eyes as they slowly gain focus. The first thing the Asset sees, properly, is always him. Maybe it makes an impression.
“Soldier,” Brock says, feeling cold sweat beneath his palms and wondering what the guy thinks - if anything - about all this. “How are you?”
There’s a brief pause where the Asset’s lips move as if he’s going over the question again, having to parse it for himself, then he swallows and says “Ready to comply, sir,” with a complete lack of inflection.
Brock nods. “Good.” He doesn’t let go, lets the warmth of his touch seep in. Too early to try anything else; too early to expect him not to sink right back to glassy oblivion. “We got a mission for you, but either it’s above my pay grade or they really like surprises, because we don’t have any details yet. So for now… I’m just gonna see how well you’ve held up since we last tested you out. Clear?”
“Yessir,” which is what Brock was expecting, still devoid of any emotion.
“Don’t worry,” he says, looking him over (dressed only in leggings; still shivering; utterly placid), “I’ll be gentle.”
He walks fast, doesn’t run, because that would waste energy right now. Their head start has elapsed and they’re being pursued, certain doom inching ever closer. It’s hard not to let it bother him. He’s been told he won’t be hurt, if he’s one of the losers - at least, that’s the plan. In reality, it’s not a sure thing. He has nothing but a combat knife, which might as well be a damp noodle if it comes down to that.
“I was petting you this morning,” he hisses to himself, little more than a breath, thinking of starting off jogging again. “So I hope you remember me.”
The terms ‘roughhousing’ and ‘the Asset’ go together about as well as ‘gerbil’ and ‘blender’ and Brock knows this, so he taps out, hard. There’s a long moment where yet again he accepts that he’s going to die like this; he’s used to the idea, so much so that he doesn’t bother any more with badass last words. “Get off of me you Soviet fucktoy, or your ass is going back in the freezer.”
Of course they won’t actually put him back in cryo; the unknown mission is still to come, and it would be a shame to cut short the fun. Fun for Brock, mostly, but he’s discovered that the Asset is more than capable of at least showing some enthusiasm for the parts of life that aren’t murder, medical unpleasantness or cold storage. Even if it might be short-lived, he takes what he can get, and what he’s currently got is his handler pinned beneath him. His arm loosens obediently, though, (and Brock is slightly relieved that those weren’t his actual last words).
“Fucking finally . Be quicker next time.”
The Asset makes a compliant kind of noise and sits back on his heels. He scrapes his hair from his face with his right hand - his left is shut down and bound behind his back.
“If I tap out,” Brock continues, sitting up, “it’s because I fucking mean it. I’m not a fucking pussy.” And he’ll probably have bruises tomorrow because of that, and Jack will get at him in a way that implies that he really cares about Brock, which Brock tries not to think about too much because it makes his chest tighten. “They never teach you basic fucking manners?”
It’s more of a rhetorical question and the Asset knows it so doesn’t say anything, head bowed and half his expression locked behind the mask.
“Hey, I’m kidding.” Brock smacks him gently in the chest and he looks up, and Brock telegraphs like a turn-of-the-century postmaster to jump at him and avoid being killed on reflex. They wrestle on the mat for a while, with no particular direction to it; he has a feeling that he’s being allowed to win as an apology for last time. He can deal with that. It’s actually having the intended effect, making him feel quite the warrior as he grabs the Asset from behind and tangles his limbs, trapping him on his back. The annoyed huff through the muzzle makes him laugh, squeezing a little tighter.
“Got you good, big guy.” He’s putting quite a bit of pressure on the Asset’s neck, wedged in the crook of his elbow, but it doesn’t seem to be hurting just yet. “You gonna give up? Or you just wanna cuddle, is that it?” Letting Brock win would mean getting choked out, surely: so it’s a toss-up, whether his urge to please will win out over his desire to stay conscious. There’s a third option - throw Brock at the wall with a flick of the wrist - but it’s unlikely. Unlikely enough, anyway, that Brock feels safe to carry on compressing his airway.
“How’s that feel?” No response, and with it the realisation that he’s really not going to make a move, not going to stop it; he trusts (or fears) his handler to the point that he’s prepared to black out. The laxness that Brock mistook for play-acting was genuine surrender.
He stops, because he has to. He has to, because he doesn’t want to cause damage. Because they might be tough, but super-soldiers are still human, and pre-mission is a bad time for fucking up.
He slows down, for a rest, gets his back against an enormous fallen tree and takes a drink, checking in. He's not hungry just yet, he has about four hours of daylight left; no injuries or aches or pains. It's a few miles to the safe point - not that he's going in a straight line - but plausible before nightfall. There’s not much use thinking about the others. They’re either still in the game, or they’re not: they can’t bother him, whichever way it happens.
The sun starts to sink. Feeling like you’re being followed is never pleasant; even worse is feeling like you may be being followed, but knowing that you won’t be able to tell until it’s too late. He can’t stop himself getting jumpy, but he can harness it and use it to drive himself forward. The safe point is a tower, rising from a hill above the forest, and he’s presently climbing, moving gradually up the valley. Evening light slants through green-limned branches, and there’s little to see besides the bounty of nature and little to hear besides the rustling of a soft summer breeze and the singing of the birds. Brock isn’t really in the mood for that. He wades across a small stream - no splashing, no excess noise - and starts ascending the slope in earnest.
When the energy of wrestling has worn off, he’s sitting with his boots pressed to the base of the Asset’s spine, forcing him into a split against the wall, for entirely humanitarian reasons.
“Thirty more seconds. Count for me.”
He does, although reluctantly, his face turned to one side and almost touching the concrete. It’s impressive how flexible he still is, even after all these years.
“I guess you’re still young,” Brock thinks out loud, finally letting him up. “Don't give me that look. Your hips are always too tight. It’s my job to fix that.”
Barefoot, in combats and a single-sleeved compression shirt, the Asset stands and stretches his back and waits for the next command. His hair is still wet, tied back at the base of his neck - because for once, he let them wash it and comb it out. Pritchard got rid of the mass of knots and made him look halfway respectable. Brock is pleased with that, and with his lack of homicidal intent towards the technical crew, and the training has been the icing on the cake. Being able to spend a few hours putting him through his paces, watching poetry in motion. It doesn’t even feel like work.
"I've got some bullshit team-building thing this afternoon," Brock says, kicking him gently to correct his posture. "But I'm sure you'll be fine, doing whatever you're doing."
It might be his imagination, but it might also be that Pritchard gave him a weird look at that point, and like a fool he didn't ask any questions.
Team-building . It’s still bullshit, even if they lied to get everybody here and promptly put them in mortal danger. His neck and shoulders are tense with the idea of what might be behind him - a shadow, a dark soot-smudge between the trees, gone in a blink and back just as fast. The wall of the tower is visible now. Just a little too far for him to sprint for it. Something behind him might have made a noise; perhaps a footfall, landing in the undergrowth, but he won’t look back. Slow and steady. No cause for alarm. He’s almost finished. It’s just a training exercise, and they’re both relatively unarmed, and there’s no reason to go for the kill.
Brock repeats that in a furious mutter about fifteen times before his nerve finally gives out and he runs .
It’s pure panic driving him and he thought he wouldn’t fall victim to it but thoughts of the others did it and he’s running and cursing anyone who said this was a good idea and the tower must be right there but he’s not even sure he’s fleeing in the right direction, and that would be just fucking great if he ran the wrong way and looked like an idiot in front of everyone -.
And a weight slams into his back.
He gets a faceful of grass and his outstretched arm is about ten yards from the tower, which hurts more than any injuries he might have just obtained. His chest is still hammering fit to burst. There’s two hundred pounds of assassin sitting on him. He might well be about to die. But he was so close .
He struggles to turn over so he doesn’t have to breathe dirt instead of air, and starts off with “Ok, big guy, do your worst,” because as last words go, that’s not too bad.
The Asset rests astride his hips and pulls off the glasses; not usual when he catches his prey, but certainly appreciated. It’s a relief to see his eyes.
“Ok,” Brock admits, “I looked like a jackass running away from you. But you’re scary. Even for me.”
“Last one to be found, Agent Rumlow,” says Sitwell’s smug little voice, and of course Pierce sent one of his lackeys instead of turning up in person. “And so close to finishing. Congratulations.”
Brock groans and lets his head thump back against the ground. Sitwell has a couple of men with him, and probably a car waiting at the top of the hill, so he doesn’t get his expensive shoes dirty. The goons with the guns have the good sense to stay back. “Are the rest alive?”
“Safe and sound,” Sitwell says casually, as if they weren’t risking everybody’s lives with this little endeavour. He starts walking towards them, hands folded like a lecturer. “They didn’t make it nearly as far as you - honestly, it’s impressive, the distance you put between yourself and - .”
“Save the speech for the after-party,” Brock says. “And don’t come any closer.”
Sitwell does stop walking, but he wavers, not used to direct orders. Brock raises an eyebrow at him and points at the Asset. The focus is absolute - on Sitwell, not on anybody else.
“What you got, big guy?” Brock murmurs, starting to grin even though he’s tired and cold and just wants to lie down somewhere that isn’t a damp muddy hillside. “Something new to play with?”
His grin gets bigger. He’s really only saying it to freak Sitwell out, and Sitwell looks disturbed, but not nearly as much as he should: not nearly as much as he would if he was able to feel the Asset tense above him, coiled with power.
“Alright.” Brock puts his hands on black-clad thighs, just because he can. “Don’t hurt him, ok? He’s important. Apparently.”
“Agent Rumlow…” Sitwell says, and the forward step he takes is the biggest mistake he’s made all day, perhaps all week.
Brock knows the pressure of his palms is the only thing holding the Asset back. He looks Sitwell in the eye, and lets go.
Chapter 14: Alarm
Rogers has one of those big old-fashioned alarm clocks which are little more than symbolic nowadays, and it makes a sound like a pneumatic drill going through a china cupboard, so that’s definitely not the noise that wakes him up.
It’s too early in the morning. His eyes register this before seeing who’s calling, so he answers and says “The fuck you want?”, just so it’s clear how unimpressed he is.
“Uhh…” the agent on the other end starts, and that’s what really wakes him up. He rolls over, concerned, the phone pressed to his ear, and waits for her to tell him exactly how much shit has hit which of their fans.
“Mhm?” Rogers asks, definitely more awake than he seems, so Rumlow lets him wriggle up and rest on his chest. Regardless of what has happened, he feels he’ll be better able to handle the news while grasping one of America’s finest buttocks.
“We’ve lost something belonging to SHIELD,” she says, “on a flight.”
For a mission report, it’s extremely lacking in detail - except it gives him all the detail he needs.
“Baggage put on the wrong plane, huh?” he says neutrally, resisting the urge to punch something.
“Looks like it.”
“Alright.” He hangs up and sighs, loudly.
“That’s something I’ve never understood,” Rogers says sleepily into Rumlow’s right pectoral, not bothering to pretend he hasn’t heard. “How your bags get put on the wrong plane. Even though they’re labelled. Can’t we just…?” He gives it some thought. “Maybe we should just pay baggage handlers enough to care.”
“Amen to that,” Rumlow responds, because at least Rogers is willing to be the change he wants to see in the world. As is Rumlow, for that matter. “Look, Steve… I’ve gotta go.”
“I know.” He hides his disappointment badly.
“Duty calls, right? Sometimes at 4am.” He can’t turn his phone off, after all. None of them can. He doesn’t think he can remember how to do it. “Ok, big guy.” He slaps Rogers on the ass. “C’mon, move. You can’t keep me here.”
“No, because we know how that’s gonna end…” he keeps the banter going, light-hearted, although he’s about half a second from really wanting to hurt him. Rogers releases him anyway, smirking into the pillow.
“You want me to stay here until you get back?”
That image - a bed full of Cap, warmed up and waiting for him to return - almost eclipses the size of the fuck-up he’s been called to deal with. Almost. “Hey, I’d love that - but I’m not gonna be back for a while. Just amuse yourself, right?”
Rogers gives him a half-hearted salute, and he can summon a smile before escaping into the chilly dawn.
“Ok, Jack.” Brock keeps his voice low and level. “I’m gonna need you to tell me what they told you, because I hate to say it, but you’re the only one stopping me from going out there and smacking some fucking heads together.”
“For what it’s worth,” Rollins murmurs, “I don’t think it was their fault.”
“That’s worth shit and you know it,” to which Jack nods, unoffended. “They should have fucking called me instead of waiting all fucking night - but they didn’t. So instead of being on a fucking search-and-rescue right now, we’re standing like retards in this fucking hallway until I make some sense of what happened here. I don’t fucking care whose fault it is, except I am definitely gonna make them wish they were never fucking born.”
Jack absorbs all this in silence, plucks a toothpick from its container, puts it in his mouth. “We lost him. You know that. The crash went off without a hitch and we know he didn’t go down with the aircraft. The tracker was in the chute and they picked it up about a half-hour ago, strung in a tree. After that - nothin’.”
“He got stuck in a tree?” It would be an amusing image, if Brock felt like being amused. “Whose fucking idea was it to put…? Fuck. How long has he been loose?”
“Aircraft reported coming down at about 2000 local time… he would’ve jumped a while before that, so… should probably have RV’d before midnight. And it’s… 1700 right now.”
“Fuck!” Rumlow’s foot hits the wall so hard it cracks the plaster. The few agents daring to be in the same room glance up, startled. “Eighteen hours.” He raises his voice, deliberately. “Eighteen fucking hours! And guess what, chucklefucks - Secretary Pierce has given us less than that to find him. So either call your next of kin right now, or get fucking moving!”
They flee into the room next door. Jack sighs.
“Alright,” Rumlow says, resigned to a body bag if he doesn’t make this happen. “Let’s go. Recon at the landing site and see which way he went, at least.”
“We’ll find him,” Jack says.
“I can’t afford not to. Fuck. This is what happens when I’m not -.” He doesn’t finish the thought, because Jack steps forward and takes his hands.
“I said we , dumbass.” He gives Brock’s fingers a squeeze, warm and sure, and leaves to marshall the others.
“There’s tracks from the landing site almost all the way to here,” the agent with the GPS says. They’ve formed up well around the commander, despite his seething rage; he can at least keep cool enough not to make this any tougher than it has to be. Besides, he’s got a lot of thinking to do.
“He got so close to the RV,” Rumlow paces a few steps on the damp ground. “So why did he back off again?”
A light patter of rain is all that answers him. He looks at the sky and sighs, trying to follow the Asset’s logic.
“If he’d been intending to run away, he would’ve done it the minute he got down from that fucking tree. He’d go the opposite direction. But he followed mission protocol, right the way… up to… here.”
“Did he want to put us off the scent?”
“If he wanted to be missing, he’d do it.” He rubs his forehead. “You wouldn’t see a fucking thing. He’s done that before - took us weeks to find him,” and by ‘us’ he means the agents of decades ago, when the Asset got fed up and fled into the roughest parts of Brooklyn. They found him, and returned him, but it wasn’t pretty. Rumlow has a feeling that that’s when the strongest wipes started happening. “He got this far, and then….”
A strident hooting interrupts him. The squad freeze in place as one, motionless shadows in the undergrowth, and watch the locomotive rattle and chug its way through the valley, rumbling off into the sunset-blushed plains beyond.
“The RV was with a train?” Rumlow asks quietly, when it’s gone.
“He could board without being seen,” someone explains, “one agent with him, the rest of the extract team waiting at the station. Disguised as guards on a freight train. I don’t know why it didn’t….”
“Spread out,” Rumlow says. “Search the valley. Your perimeter is the top of these hills; ping me straight away if you find him. I don’t think he’s gone far.”
Mostly, they discover only the local wildlife. But he’s correct - which is a nice feeling, for once - and within the hour, there’s an agent in his ear saying “Found something, sir.”
He doesn’t have to warn them not to approach. At least the Asset isn’t doing much; just sitting on the ground, one knee bent with his right arm wrapped around it, staring down at the distant glint of the railway line. His face is blank.
Rumlow signals for them to stand guard, and draws his sidearm before getting anywhere near. Just in case.
“Soldier? Respond. Respond, now .”
It’s not the first time he’s gone catatonic. Like trying to crack open a safe, there are a few things they can trying before resorting to the dynamite, but it comes down to patience, skill and an abundance of time. Which, with the sun starting to set and Pierce’s deadline ticking away, they don’t exactly have.
Rumlow creeps in, to a complete lack of reaction. “Hey, big guy. What’s up?”
That garners a blink, at least.
“Can’t we just p-” one of the team starts, and Jack shushes them harshly. Rumlow is glad of that; it means he can just about hear the Asset’s voice, soft and hoarse behind the mask.
“There was a train,” he says.
“Uh-huh. And it’s got you thinking? Why’s that?”
“It was cold.” The Asset nods to himself, slowly. “Very cold.”
“Well, it’s not cold here. Is it?” The heat of the day is fading, but it’s balmy enough. Rumlow is sweating for entirely different reasons. “Why don’t you come with me?”
He finally tears his eyes away from the valley, and looks straight through Rumlow’s face. Whatever he’s seeing, he’s lost in it.
“Well, I’d love to,” he says, the broad Brooklyn accent rising through. “But, there was a….”
“C’mon, man,” Brock insists, leaning over him. “I wanna help you. Ok? That’s what I’m here for. And… I gotta be honest with you, we don’t have much time.”
“Are they on our tail?” He huffs, planting his right hand on the ground behind him and levering himself to his feet - not using the left at all. “Those guys don’t know when to fuckin’ quit. I wish Steve was here, he’d sort ‘em out.”
Brock disguises his flinch, as if someone dropped a scorpion in his shirt. The Asset doesn’t seem to notice, dusting himself off and hoisting his rifle on his shoulder. “Alright, sir. Lead the way.”
“Score,” says one of the agents, relieved and happy.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Jack murmurs by his ear, as they form up to move off. “If you’re getting Steve out of him….”
A boy of no more than twelve or thirteen, armed with a stick and a solemn, bored expression, drives a herd across the tracks. The train is forced to stop as the cows, sauntering no faster than their disenchanted guardian, tiptoe over the rails, swinging their tails, flicking their ears, chewing all the while. The boy, perhaps, has a few miles to go before home; before he can share with his family his reward for deviating from the normal route.
They have perhaps a few minutes, at the very most. The Asset has followed them obediently up until this point. Now, he digs his heels into the earth and freezes to the spot. It’s useless - and dangerous - to try and push him.
“What do you want us to do, sir?”
“Nothing, nothing yet,” he’ll order them to raise their weapons only as a last resort. “Just let me….” He grips the Asset’s shoulder too tightly, although it seems to go unnoticed. “Look, we need to move. So you get your ass up there right now….”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the Asset says, staring at the carriages, “but there is no way I’m gettin’ on that fuckin’ train.”
If any of the squad get the urge to laugh, they contain it. Rumlow feels like it’s something he’ll find funny many years from now, over a beer. But this is now. And it’s not funny in the slightest.
“What did you just say to me?” He gives the Asset a shake for good measure. “The fuck did you just say to me?”
“I’m sorry.” He takes half a step back; his right arm tenses and Rumlow watches it, just in case he goes for a weapon. “I can’t -.”
“Why the fuck not?”
“Because… because it’ll - sir, it’ll - it’ll happen. Again....”
“What will happen again? Answer me!”
“I…” and his eyes meet Brock’s, wide and frightened, and Brock sees that the chasm in the Alps is there but the memory isn’t and that’s why “I… don’t know….”
He starts to tremble, violently. The way he does before they wipe him, when he knows something bad is coming, but isn’t sure what.
“Shit,” Jack breathes, and Brock casts him a look that says watch my back . (As if Jack ever did anything but.)
“Look,” he says. His hand goes into his pocket; has done at intervals ever since he landed and it was waiting there for him, prepared in advance by the team on the ground. He uses the other hand to turn the Asset around, keep him distracted. “I’m sorry. But there’s some things you just gotta….”
He slams the needle in in one quick stab, right in the base of the neck. The Asset flinches and it breaks the terror for a moment, before his eyes lose focus and he staggers.
“Now.” The team snap to it almost instantly, and Rumlow helps them. He owes them that much. It’s a matter of seconds for them all to pile on board. The rattle of the rails fills the silence as the train starts to pick up speed.
“The fuck was that?” Jack asks him, crouching on the floor. The others are spread around, covering the exits in a decent formation. Brock almost feels like being generous, and not reporting to Pierce the fact that they waited far too long to call him in.
“Fast-acting tranq. New. The guys in the lab said they were like eighty percent sure it’d work, and with those odds, I thought I’d give it a-.”
“I mean that .” Jack indicates back down the line. “You didn’t tell me he was scared of trains.”
“You didn’t fuckin’ ask,” Brock retorts. “And,” quietly, for Jack’s ears only, “I didn’t know.”
Jack sighs. “Why, though?”
“My guess? Something that happened to him while he was still… something that happened a few years ago.” He knows exactly what it was, but he can brief Jack on that when they get back. When they’re alone, and have time and space for themselves.
“Huh. Figures.” Jack lets it go. “How long have we got?”
“About,” he checks his watch, “ten minutes? Till he comes round.”
He grins at Jack, who rolls his eyes. They’ll be on this train for three hours.
It’s slow, like a bubble rising under ice in a frozen lake - and then fast. His eyes snap fully open and he grabs Brock’s arm.
“Woah, hey. Chill out.”
Whatever his reply might be, it’s lost. He’s sitting halfway up, left hand hanging abandoned, right clutching his handler. Hyperventilating, shaking like a leaf. Cowering whenever the train bumps or jolts.
“Fist of Hydra,” Brock mutters to himself, dismayed. “Finest fucking assassin in the world. But you can’t help it, big guy. Can you?” From the sounds he’s making, he’s trying to say he’s sorry. “Yeah, I know. Apology accepted.” Brock leans down and blocks the view from the others as he unfastens the mask. “Hey. Hey, look at me.
Look at me
He has to grab his hair and make it happen. “Hold your breath. Or I’m gonna do it for you,” which neither of them want. “Good. Breathe out.” He’s pinning him with his eyes, daring him to disobey; the intensity he has to put behind it hurts his head. But it’s working. Brock can finally blink, and relax his grip a little. The Asset pulls away, but the pain and the instruction have given him something to focus on. His chest is no longer heaving; he breathes steady and slow.
“Ok, big guy.” Brock can feel that he’s still shaking - and still holding on; it doesn’t seem like he’ll ever let go. “I’ve got you.” He shuffles in closer, so it may as well be just the two of them. “You think something terrible’s gonna happen? You don’t remember why, right? You just know it was a bad fuckin’ time.”
“It was cold.”
“I bet it was.” Brock nods, trying to prise his arm away. No dice. “Look, you’ve gotta let me go….”
“I can’t. If I… I let you go… I couldn’t… he couldn’t… reach….” The Asset’s face is devoid of colour, like he’s been in the ice instead of in the field.
“Who was it, soldier?” Brock prompts gently. He’s already preparing his report for the techs.
He looks around, casting for the memory, the answer that he’s obliged to give. “Steve.”
“You remember Steve, huh?”
“I don’t know anyone called Steve!” the Asset snarls suddenly, making Brock jump. “He wasn’t - I was - I was on my own! In the snow.” He blinks; might well be forcing away tears. “It was cold.”
“Nobody came after you, huh? Nobody came to find you.” Brock finally gets his arm back, and settles for the compromise of holding hands. “Now, I gotta say, I’ve seen the records - and you’re right. Whoever it was - he let you fall from that train. And he never came back for you.”
“He couldn’t reach,” the Asset says, but doesn’t sound convinced. “He... didn’t reach. I don’t know anyone called Steve,” he repeats, frowning. “Someone - nobody -” slowly but surely, convincing himself that he’s wrong.
“So, don’t stress yourself.” Brock squeezes his hand; the other reaches for where a second syringe is concealed in his pocket. “You’ve done pretty well so far. You’re gonna let one little train ride stop you?”
“Secretary Pierce is asking for you,” the agent says, as if the President has just called to ask why someone spread weed killer on the White House lawn.
Rumlow takes Jack with him, to watch the door. The screen stands alone on a small table, supported by a can, but that hardly matters to Pierce. He’s smart in his suit, probably after a good lunch. The grey expanse of his office is behind him, rather than the brightly coloured wall of this room.
“I take it you’ve found him?” he asks immediately.
“Yes sir.” Rumlow sits down heavily on the single chair and is pleasantly surprised that it takes his weight. “Flying back should be no problem. I’ll bring him personally, I don’t want another f- another situation.”
“Quite right.” Pierce looks like he’s considering, when he’s probably just pausing for effect. “I gather that the team on the ground here were the ones who nearly lost us our weapon.”
“I won’t say it’s their fault entirely, sir.” That’s as generous as he feels like being. He wants to get on the plane and get out of here - with the Asset close to his side.
“Mhm. But they didn’t contact us nearly as soon as they should have. I don’t think they truly appreciated the importance of what they were dealing with. Am I right?”
“Agent Rollins,” and Jack looks up, but not in surprise. “There’s something I’d like you to do for me.”
“Of course, Mr Secretary,” Jack says, and leaves.
“Should I…?” Brock doesn’t quite know what’s going on. It’s a familiar feeling, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it.
“No,” Pierce says quickly, “it’s alright. Stay here, and tell me - when you land, who do you want on the debrief team?”
This is something that they could deal with later, at any point, but Pierce wants to hear it now. And Brock hears what’s happening outside, so he sits there, like he must, and talks minutiae with the shots - one for each of their luckless colleagues - punctuating the conversation.
Chapter 15: Boating
If Brock was on holiday, this would be great. He’s supposed to be fishing, but there’s nobody around, gently lapping waters playing host to sweet fuck-all, so he’s abandoned the pretence and just sits bobbing slightly, his back baking in the sun, looking at the glitter of the sea through sunglasses. It’s tranquil and beautiful and he wants to be on the beach, or maybe the terrace on the clifftop, a stiff drink in one hand and a snack in the other (and Jack enjoying the same beside him; the thought is so natural now that it doesn’t surprise him like it used to). His water bottle is warm. What he wouldn’t give for something on the rocks. The sides of his trusty vessel are hot to the touch. He licks his lips and tastes salt, and scans the horizon. Not so much as a dolphin.
He’s not where the party is; that’s abundantly clear. Unless he feels like swimming several miles of open ocean, in nothing but cut-offs and a decidedly casual T-shirt, he’s not even in the general vicinity of the party. He’s quite glad that he wasn’t, technically, even invited.
He’s still staring out to sea so he nearly jumps straight from the boat when a metal hand clamps onto the side. His legs protest as he lunges forward to help, keep his balance and prevent them capsizing all at the same time, and his companion flops onto the bottom like an ugly mermaid, hair spreading out like kelp, soaked to the skin, panting. Brock pulls the mask off, and he rolls over and spits salt water over the side before collapsing back.
“Mission report,” Brock says, and the Asset looks at him and it makes him laugh with how clearly are you kidding me is conveyed in a single blink. “Alright, ok. But you gotta tell me at some point.”
He offers water, and it’s taken gratefully. He can’t imagine what the journey would have been like, ploughing through the endless sea since dawn, a weapon sunk to the bottom and a yacht full of corpses lying behind. “You had fun?”
“Target eliminated,” the Asset says finally. He doesn’t bother to sit up, or move aside from raising his head for more water. He runs his tongue over his lip. “No witnesses.”
“Uh-huh. And lemme guess,” Brock starts the motor and steers them towards the sheer cliffs of the coast, “that wetsuit chafes like hell.”
He only stirs when they’re deep in the sea-cave, Brock paddling the boat to moor it to a ring hidden among green-flecked rocks. A ladder - rusted but stronger than it looks - disappears up through the cliff, a narrow shaft up to the top. Brock is sure he hears a sigh, but there’s no other complaint as they climb. His limbs are heavy and sun-drugged and threatening to tremble by the time they emerge, so he stretches while admiring the view. If he was rich enough to build a huge holiday villa here, he definitely would. His might not have two swimming pools, or the ridiculous ‘long gallery’ filled mostly with pictures of ex-wives - but he could go for the scenery, and the solitude. And the money. The Asset looks fairly indifferent.
“I’ll take whatever you’ve got that doesn’t taste like cat piss. On the rocks. And you - drop your stuff here and go take a shower.”
To his credit, their host doesn’t stare too much as the Asset strips off right there and then. He does stare, though, on his way to the bar. Brock watches him pour - sloppy; this is a man who rarely fixes his own drinks, but the staff are all elsewhere for good reason - noting the position of the bottle from the shelf.
“Have one for yourself, buddy.” Mr Moneybags laughs, so apparently it’s a joke, so Brock laughs too. He keeps one ear out for the shower stopping, then goes straight behind the bar and pours out a third.
“I know we’re drinking on duty, technically,” he says, injecting a bit of conspiracy into it, “but if you don’t say anything… neither will I.” He follows it up with the wink, because the guy is easy to read and his face is saying that of course he’ll keep secrets of wrongdoing, and hands the glass over.
“Here you go, big guy.” The Asset doesn’t look at it like they just dropped a live flamingo in his lap. It’s enough to make Brock dizzy with pride: their beautiful weapon, acting like a real human for once. (He’s only in a short pair of shorts, which doesn’t hurt either.) He sits beside Brock on the deck and downs it in one movement, seeming pleasantly surprised.
“Good stuff, huh?” Brock asks him, and he agrees quietly, setting it down with care. “Ok.”
Brock takes a sip - he can’t drink as fast as that, especially in this heat - savours the taste, as well as the sight of the villa’s owner standing in his stupid tiny bathing trunks at his rich-guy bar, staring at them both. “You look like you want another one.” He grabs the empty glass and waves it behind him, because it amuses him to have their host come and take it. “And then you’re gonna tell me how it went.”
“Infiltrated the vessel,” which means he clambered right out of the sea up onto the deck like a well-armed crab, “the primary bedroom was exactly where the plans said it would be.” The shipwright wouldn’t give them the designs, but a suspiciously well-qualified new intern took care of that. “There weren’t any guards.”
Brock mutters something about people thinking they’re safe from Hydra in the middle of the fucking ocean, and grins to himself as he’s handed a full drink. He passes it along. “How many did you chop up?”
“Target, eight others.”
“Not on board.”
“Did you check everywhere?”
“Yes.” There’s a definite bite to it, as if he’s annoyed. As if Brock was accusing him of not being able to track down a single living, breathing woman hiding from impending murder in a few thousand square feet of luxury yacht.
“Well, that’s fine,” Brock says. “We’ll find her. Did you trash the place?”
“Yessir.” Those were the instructions: kill everyone on board, with a machete no less, and ransack the cabins to make it look like pirates might be responsible.
“Good work. And nobody’s gonna suspect a thing. Hail Hydra.”
“Hail Hydra,” the homeowner says, like an echo. The Asset drains his glass and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
“I don’t think you need any more,” Brock tells him - although he’s like Rogers, almost incapable of getting drunk - and takes both their glasses, and goes to the sink to wash them up.
“Leave it,” the owner says, “someone will do it later.”
“Nah, it’s alright.” Brock just shrugs. “I don’t like leaving the cleanup to someone else. Gotta finish the job, you know?”
One of the best things about working with the Asset is his immunity to what Jack always says are terrible lines. We’re badasses anyway, stop ruining it. He doesn’t bat an eyelid - at least, not so his handler can see. He just stands up, takes the other man by the scruff of the neck, and drags him into the pool. Perhaps the poor bastard tries to yell; it’s not exactly clear. Either way, he’s held under by an immovable metal hand, until he stops thrashing.
“Done?” Brock puts the glasses away, grabs the bottle with a towel around the neck, and throws it into the pool as well. “Check his pulse. I’m not having him climb out of there the second we’re gone.”
As much as he’d love to stay in the house - and maybe use the other pool - the job is done, and they have to leave. He double-checks that they’ve got all their gear, and resists the temptation to raid the bar as well.
“C’mon big guy, let’s go.” The Asset turns from where he’s been staring at the ocean. “Good news for you - you won’t have to swim this time.”
Chapter 16: Improper Conduct
“Don’t you see enough of this guy at work?” Pritchard says. “I’m not saying that’s bad. But you’ve got the real thing, why do you -?”
“It’s not about him,” Brock tells her, standing right in front of giant poster of stars and stripes and Rogers’ face. “For once.”
They dawdle through the exhibition with the crowd - it’s a weekday, so not too busy, but still well-attended - and look at a few displays.
“Ok, fine,” Pritchard snaps eventually. Brock has been waiting, finding the edges of her limited patience. She can get very nasty when she’s tested, and it’s one of the things he likes. “Why are we here? I had an afternoon off, and you insisted on dragging me all the way here - for what? I’m not swooning over the star-spangled ass of America’s favourite war hero. I can do that at work.”
“How did it go with Rogers?” Brock asks, casually, and wonders if she’ll actually kick him in the balls in public.
“Not well,” she says through gritted teeth. “I don’t think we’re compatible .”
“Shame. Super-cute blond kid, am I right?”
“Almost guaranteed.” She has her arm linked with his and she’s crushing his elbow joint. “But it looks like it’s not happening. Anyway, you said it wasn’t about him for once.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s about him .”
Pritchard actually looks at what’s in front of them, directed by his hand, reading the captions.
“Yeah, I’m looking at it. What?”
“Look at it again. Really look.”
She gives him an exasperated glance - something he tolerates from few people - and focuses back on the picture. After a minute, something clicks.
“Oh my god.”
They wander away, and get coffee, and sit outside on a low wall. Brock enjoys the silence. Pritchard stares into the distance.
“I guess Rogers is the type who’d want to use birth control,” Brock says thoughtfully, taking a sip of his drink. “He’s really fucking responsible . You name a guy less likely to sow his wild o-.”
“It’s gotta be a clone,” Pritchard states blandly. “It can’t be -.”
“Yeah? Any clone would have the serum already in them. Probably be able to re-grow their arm, right?”
“That wouldn’t be a sure thing,” she says faintly. “Or it might take a long time, so it’d be easier to….”
“Bullshit. You tell me a clone would have those scars.”
“Well, with an imperfect -.”
“You tell me a clone would slip up and call you doll sometimes, when he forgets which year he’s in.”
Pritchard sighs into the top of her cup.
“Alright,” she concedes. “It says there that they intercepted a rail convoy carrying bio-weapons…. So how did he manage to survive when he got shot?”
“Because he didn’t,” Brock says. “Where in that does it say he got shot? Sure, that’s what they want you to think - good guys always go out guns blazing, taking down bad guys. But he didn’t. He fell. It was an accident, really. The Soviets picked him up, and - well, I think you can guess the rest.”
“Holy fucking Christ,” she murmurs. A smile is appearing on her face, and Brock shares it.
“And you know how I know that?” She doesn’t, but she shuffles closer for him to tell her, and that’s even better. “Only one guy still remembers. And he’ll go on and on about it, if you let him. Especially if you’re in bed with him and you’ve just blown his fucking mind. And the lights are off, and he trusts you, and he wants to talk about it because there’s nobody else left to share the pain.”
Pritchard punches him in the arm. “Oh, go to hell. Why don’t you just remind me how you’ve fucked him and I haven’t.”
“Aw, I’m sorry.” Brock grins, because he’s not really sorry. “I’m also gonna remind you that it was fucking amazing and it’s really not that hard to get in there, because that guy,” he points at a banner hung from a lamp post, “is a sad, desperate slut.”
“I can’t help but feel that that’s disrespecting our country’s heritage.” She isn’t seriously annoyed. She gets even, instead of mad, although so far Brock has managed to stay on the safe side.
“No more than anything else we’re doing. You gonna try again?”
“With the other one,” she says. “I’m going to try and get another sample.”
“Can’t help but feel you’re calling the kettle black, and you’re a pot.”
Brock shrugs, since she’s right. He won’t help her, but he’s not doing anything to stop her either. “Well, excuse me if I don’t hang around for that”
“You’re the handler.”
“I don’t wanna die . And there’s some shit I really do not need to see.”
“Suit yourself.” She stands up, and adjusts her coat. “You’ll just have to imagine it.”
Sometimes, especially when Rogers is being stuck-up and pretending that a frozen-shut asshole is somehow a thing he still possesses, it’s so tempting. Barnes must have been a real charmer back in the day - he wore the uniform well, and judging by the pictures, he knew it. ‘Ladies’ man’ probably means ‘tons of pussy’, in that context. (Rogers goes bright pink up to his ears when Brock says that, and it’s adorable.) Turned down by one super-soldier, Brock reckons he can always go for the other, in a wonderful display of irony.
Jack says that that’s not irony. Brock knows he might be right, but the lesson still stands. Since 1949 or so, a total of twenty-six people have died trying to fuck with the Asset: it’s generally recorded as ‘improper conduct’, which stands out like a headline now he knows what to look for. At least that many again suffered serious injuries in their pursuit of murderous brainwashed ass, and he has that catalogue indelibly etched in the back of his mind, making his legs cross involuntarily when he thinks about it. A reminder, should one be needed, that it really, truly isn’t worth it.
They lock a girl in there once, when a small post-mission celebration turns into a veritable orgy of hookers and booze (on SHIELD expenses, if Brock remembers correctly). She’s hot and giggling and totally unaware of international conspiracies involving mysterious Soviet assassins, and in what could be described as ‘high spirits’, they shut her in a room with the Asset and watch through the keyhole.
Brock is still sober enough to realise that they probably should have muzzled him.
He sits like a discarded doll, limbs slack with his back against the wall, and gives her a cursory inspection - tiny shirt struggling to contain her chest, tiny shorts doing a similarly bad job on her ass - then goes right back to staring at the floor.
She talks, wavering with alcohol. He stares at her, unblinking, until she loses her nerve. She turns around to the door and asks them what the hell is up with their friend, and doesn’t receive an answer, and he stares. They listen as she starts crying, starts begging to be let out, and then screaming, and pounding on the door when five minutes ago she’d refused to open a beer for the sake of her manicure.
The Asset eventually gets up, disturbed by the noise if nothing else. When she notices him behind her, her voice gives out - and as soon as she goes quiet, he goes back to sit in his corner.
They let her out. She spends the rest of the time sitting in the yard, chain-smoking and trembling all over.
“Maybe he prefers blondes?” Jack says, and Brock laughs so hard he almost throws up.
Chapter 17: The Exoskeleton
“You cleaned this off, right? After last time?”
“Of course we did.” Pritchard rolls her eyes. “And improved it. Just so you’re aware.”
Rumlow rolls his head side to side and shrugs his shoulders. The exoskeleton is heavy, but not too cumbersome. “Feels pretty good.”
“What happened last time?” Jack asks.
“Oh, that. You know how I always talk about keeping the muzzle on? Well, I’m not fucking kidding. Guy had him pinned - arms, legs, pretty much immobilised, right?” He turns his arm, inspecting it critically. “Except Mr Expert forgot something.”
“Ripped our man’s throat right out,” Pritchard says casually. “With his teeth. It was a mess .”
Jack nods; it makes sense to him. “And you still wanna fuck that?”
“For your information , Agent Rollins,” Pritchard snaps icily, “I don’t want to fuck that any more than you do. And it’s already done, anyway. The sample is right where it needs to be.”
“Congrats,” Rumlow says, and pats her gently on the shoulder with the right gauntlet. “Let me know when the party is. Alright, let’s go”
He’s been able, so far, to spar with the Asset on occasion - provided some strict rules are followed. Number one, the mask (dying like that would be embarrassing, frankly). Number two, the metal arm deactivated and secured. Number three, no weapons. And the mood has to be right. If he’s too murderous, nothing will stop them losing yet another handler. This time: none of the above.
“You sure you wanna try it?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. Seriously. Best fight I’ll ever have - since Cap always goes easy on me. And with this - well, let’s see.”
He taps his fists together, and extends them with a very satisfying ch-clunk. The hydraulic power behind a punch from these should be the equal of any serum-enhanced body.
“You feel like a superhero?” Pritchard calls after him, as he enters the test chamber.
“I feel super powered ,” he says over his shoulder, keeping his eyes front - and for good reason.
The Asset looks fairly dubious. He recognises his handler, if not the exoskeleton. Or maybe he’s thinking about last time, when he resorted to his final line of defence. He’s muzzled right now, and Rumlow is wearing a helmet, so that won’t be an option. He shifts on his feet, about to start circling.
“Come on, big guy.” Rumlow beckons him forwards, fighting stance. Challenging him. “You know how to do this. Don’t embarrass me by not trying to kill me at least o-.”
The metal arm hits his upraised fist with a crash that would have shattered his bones at any other time. They both go for the gut and their hands collide. The Asset kicks his legs out from under him and he drops, rolls: not comfortable, but at least he has armour to protect him from the knee thumping onto his chest. He blocks a blow to the head, a second, a third, another - the Asset has him trapped and should be smashing his skull right now, but for the armatures in the way. He hears something crack. The exoskeleton is built for shock and awe, not a prolonged assault. He takes a chance and grabs the flesh hand as it swings for his face, brings his knee up sharp for space enough to sit up and punch the Asset in the chest, full force.
It’s dramatic, to say the least. The Asset flies back and strikes the concrete wall. Rumlow flops onto his backside from the recoil, and has to get up stiffly - hoping that Jack isn’t looking; not his finest moment. He can’t exactly spring upright in this gear, but he’s not alone: the Asset slides his spine up the wall to rise, using it for support. He’s getting ready to move again when Rumlow dives in and pins him, nailing his arms and hips.
It’s like trying to hold back a falling cliff face. The exoskeleton takes most of the strain, but Rumlow still starts to sweat - and not just from effort. This is where it went so wrong last time. He can see it: his now-deceased colleague, holding a super-soldier down with relative ease, buoyed by victory and turning to grin at the others; hey, this is pretty awesome - and paying the price.
“You’re not gonna bite me, big guy.” The Asset looks furious, which is his prerogative, but only his eyes can convey that. “So what are you gonna do?”
He growls and tries to knock their heads together, which Rumlow avoids - and steps back, which is a mistake. The Asset surges and pushes him off and he’s staggering, almost going down. He has to twist around to get his balance and suddenly has a weight on his back. It doesn’t break his spine, although by all rights it should - either that or the Asset is going to snap his neck.
“Flaw in the plan,” he gasps to Pritchard (concerned) and Jack (not concerned in the slightest). “It’s a lot better when you’re facing them.”
He takes a dive and smashes them both against the floor, knocking the breath out of their lungs and breaking the Asset’s grip for long enough to struggle free. He can’t quite grapple but he can use blunt force, and now he’s on top. The Asset kicks and struggles in vain - Rumlow is now too heavy and hits too hard. The metal arm rings with the blows; his only defence and only good for one hand at a time. Rumlow gets in a good one in the ribs and another in the jaw and is surprised to see blood, seeping from a cut below the Asset’s eye. He could, in all likelihood, batter the Fist of Hydra to death right here - and ok, he had to get lucky to do it even in all this gear. But it was possible. And that convinces him.
“Ok,” he says, and presses a forearm onto the Asset’s throat, keeping the metal hand at bay with the other. “Ok, that’s enough.”
“What do you want me to do?” Pritchard shouts from a safe distance. “Distract him with a ball of yarn?”
“Stop being a smartass,” Rumlow snaps. “Then… uh….”
He doesn’t quite know what to do at this point. If he lets go, the Asset might still try and kill him - and he’s not sure how long he can keep up this kind of performance. Neither does he want to cause catastrophic damage to one of their most effective weapons. It’s kind of his job to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The Asset is panting, wriggling, clearly disturbed by the fact he’s on his back on the floor, injured and unable to get away. He’s not meant to lose. His knee smacks Rumlow in the base of the spine, with enough force to jolt him upwards. If he’s not careful, he’ll be thrown right off.
“Ok, I’m gonna - you know what? Just get ready with the fucking door. Copy that?”
“Alright then,” Pritchard says, sounding doubtful, but it’s not as if she’ll hesitate. Rumlow counts to three, silently, then cracks the Asset hard across the face and flings himself at the doorway like a crash dummy from a catapult.
He hits the corridor flat and undignified and hears the door slam. Jack extends a hand to help him up. An impact shudders the wall.
“I don’t think he’s too happy,” Pritchard says. She stands on tiptoe and peeks through the grate at the top of the door - a metal fist dents the bars with a clang and she drops back down. “Nope. Definitely not happy.”
“Right.” Rumlow gets his breath back, leaning on Jack, stripping off the gauntlets so he can take off his helmet and run a hand through his hair. “It worked, though. I can definitely go toe-to-toe with these guys - but it’d have to be short. And you know what would improve these? Knives. That’s what it needs, some knives. Like, blades that go -” he indicates, and Pritchard snorts.
“You’ve been playing too much Assassin’s Creed.”
“No I fucking haven’t,” because why would he, when surrounded by the real thing? “But they’ve got a point, right? I don’t wanna have to try and crack open a super-skull when I could just fucking stab the guy….”
“Agent Rumlow.” Healy and his bowtie appear around a corner. “Was the test successful?”
“I’m still alive, aren’t I?”
Healy eyes him; he probably looks a little beaten up now he’s out of the exoskeleton, his black shirt striped with sweat and his hair a mess. “So you are. And the Asset?”
Pritchard opens her mouth, closes it again, exchanges a look with him and says “Why don’t you take a look?”
For all she’s done - and she’s done some highly dubious shit, even by their standards - Brock definitely likes her.
Healy sidles up and takes a cursory glance through the grate, because he’s distinguished himself by being smart enough not to try and open the door. “Hm. Did you manage to injure him with the… enhancements?”
“No, he just started bleeding on his own.”
“No need to be sarcastic. Shouldn’t we assess him for damage?”
“Assess him for damage!” Rumlow rolls his shoulders, and winces at a muscle strain. “Yeah, great fucking idea. Let’s play doctors.”
“Well… you could go in there and investigate.”
“Fuck off,” Rumlow says, mostly out of surprise. “You expect me to feel him up when he’s like this?”
“You are the chief handler, Agent.”
“ Commander . I got a promotion for having to deal with your bullshit.”
“So - handle him.”
“He just tried to kill him,” Pritchard interjects, although Rumlow could do without Healy knowing that.
“So he’s probably got it out of his system,” Healy says confidently, as if the Asset is having a tantrum, rather than still trying to break down the door with his bare hands. “I mean, we could certainly get a medical team down here, and try and sedate for long enough for them to get a look… time-consuming, and not necessarily a good use of resources….”
“Fuck you and fuck your resources,” Rumlow says, needled. He knows he’s letting Healy provoke him into it. Maybe the annoyance will give him the edge he needs. “I’ll do it. But don’t expect a fucking book report.”
He looks through the grate, and the Asset is gone. It gives him a nasty shock, and it’s hard to hide it. But he has an idea of what’s happened. Ignoring the look that Healy gives him, he drops down and presses his ear to the thick steel plating.
“Son of a bitch. He’s right behind the door.” He straightens up. “Christ, I’d better not die for this. Jack.”
His second looks up, making Pritchard jump.
“Cover me. He might waste me anyway, but at least make sure it’s an open fucking casket.”
“Copy that,” Jack says with a hint of fondness, bringing up his weapon.
Rumlow puts a hand on his stun stick and motions for Pritchard to open the door.
A streak of black knocks him on his ass and he hears Jack take aim and shouts “Freeze!” just in time.
He was prepared, but his back is still bruised and it was a close one. His heart thunders in his chest. The Asset looms over him, poised on one knee, the metal arm cocked back - a guaranteed kill on an unprotected human. Snakes of electricity slither up the stun stick held between them.
“Ok, ok.” He snaps the power off; not being dead is a clear indicator that he has control. “Chill the fuck out. I haven’t got the fancy gear any more.”
The Asset looks him up and down as if to confirm, then retreats.
“On your knees.” He drops down obediently and Rumlow gets up to stand in front of him. “You hurting anywhere?”
Pain is generally an irrelevance, but he understands. His hand indicates his ribs, his right wrist, and his jaw.
“Makes sense, that’s where I hit you. Let me see.”
He stays motionless, head down, for a quick once-over - only wincing when his ribs are pressed.
“You know,” Healy says from the doorway, “perhaps they’re -.”
“I don’t care,” Rumlow tells him, “so can it.” He doesn’t want Healy to break the spell, or the Asset won’t be the only one with a few broken bones. “That hand looks ok.” The knuckles are bloody but his wrist is only strained. “What about your face?”
The Asset sighs when the mask is removed, takes hold of his own jaw and yanks it back into place. A low moan of pain escapes, but that’s all.
“Fucking hell, you guys are tough.” Rumlow replaces the mask - taking no chances. “Hey, Healy. Come on in. The water’s fine.”
“Are you sure he’s…?”
“Yep. You wanted a look, here you go. Pet him if you like.”
“I’ve never -” Healy says stiffly, and he probably hasn’t done anything of the sort. He’s used to the Asset drugged up, strapped down and with all the attentiveness of a recently dead sloth. He does get closer, though.
“Now this,” Rumlow says quietly, “is where you’re really fucking glad you picked the right side.”
“Well, if I hadn’t, then -.”
A single Russian word and Healy is trapped at the wall with the metal hand on his throat. He makes a gratifying squealing noise, and Rumlow laughs.
“ Good ,” he says indulgently, hearing Pritchard giggle behind him. “Don’t worry, he’s not gonna hurt you.”
“I find that hard to believe.” His bowtie is budged a little out of place. He’s doing remarkably well at staying calm.
“Nah, I’m being honest here. What kind of handler would I be if I couldn’t stop him killing you?”
“A fairly typical one,” Healy says, with contempt.
“Well then I’m happy to disappoint you, buddy. Ok, drop him.” The Asset does, quite literally. “Good. Now tell him you’re sorry for scaring him.”
“ I’m sorry for scaring you ,” not in English, but it’ll do. Rumlow grins at him. He’s lost the manic energy completely now, calm and watchful. Not blank, though - never make the mistake of thinking he’s blank.
“Ok, c’mere. I’ll go in with the gear again later,” informing Healy more than anyone else. “You can have a try if you want.”
“I think… maybe, ah…” Healy is distracted, both by fixing his shirt front and by the Asset moving into Rumlow’s space, allowing an arm around his back.“Maybe I’ll leave that up to you. You two seem pretty... friendly.”
“Yeah, for now. But don’t worry. You might get rid of me for good next time.”
Chapter 18: Erratic
‘Unstable’ can mean anything in tech-speak; covering a spectrum from ‘can’t put his own socks on’ to ‘murdering everything that moves’. Rumlow guesses, as soon as he’s summoned, that this is more towards the latter. Three people have already been carted away on stretchers - hopefully to medical attention and not the morgue, although he doesn’t much care either way. Jack managed to stay out of trouble, as did Pritchard, leaning heavily on the wall and rubbing her elbow.
“I fell over,” she says dismissively, at his pointed look. “Trying to get out of his way.”
“Well, you made it.” Rumlow shrugs. “What’s the issue? We were fine yesterday.”
“Anything you picked up?”
“We didn’t really get time to evaluate the situation , believe it or not. So knock yourself out.” She pouts at him, and it tests his patience. Rumlow gets closer, just enough for the height difference to show.
“You think I don’t know about your little experiments ,” he says, with a glance downwards. “But I do. So, with that in mind - you give me a sitrep, right now. With details.”
Her face hardens, but they’re made of the same stuff and he can match everything she’s got.
“Like you said,” she begins sharply, “He was testing fine out of the freezer yesterday. We lined him up for today and wiped him, gave him the mission brief, and now he won’t sit still. We’ve tried everything, short of shooting his legs off -” discharging weapons in the vault, after all, is severely hazardous and not recommended “- so you’re welcome to try yourself.”
Rumlow nods. “Have a knockout on standby,” he tells her (which generally involves enough sedatives to take down a rhino), “and for fuck’s sake, keep it locked onto him this time.”
He takes the mag-cuffs from Jack, who mutters “Are you fuckin’ crazy?” close to his ear.
“You know I am, sweetheart,” he says with a sharp grin, and opens the gate.
The Asset isn’t in the chair, which is bad, and isn’t standing, which is worse. Rumlow has to look around to find him; past the scattered safe-boxes ripped from their racking; past the litter of medical tools; the upturned stools; the spots and splashes of blood. He’s against the opposite wall, by the door frame, half-curled with his left arm pulled in tight. Keeping a hand on the stun stick just in case things go south, Rumlow gets to a safe distance and starts the troubleshooting.
Nothing. He tries again in Russian, and at least gets a tensing of the body and a furtive, hunted look.
“Stand up.” The Asset’s boots shift on the floor, but he goes nowhere.
“Ok.” Rumlow takes out the stun stick and flashes it on for a moment or two. The Asset’s eyes widen - the pain means nothing to him, but Rumlow almost never does this. They have an understanding. The knowledge of that can be seen in the betrayed expression he makes, so that’s progress at least. “Yeah, I know. I don’t wanna shock you either. So I’m giving you a count of five to stand up.” He counts in Russian, to make it easier. “ One. Two. Three. Four. F- .”
The Asset lurches to his feet, staggering to his heavy side, and stays there. It’s hardly parade rest, but it’ll do. Rumlow doesn’t put his weapon away yet, just observes what’s in front of him. The posture, the streaks of red on the metal and the bloody fingertips of the right hand.
“It’s the arm.” He risks turning his head a fraction to shout over his shoulder at the techs by the door. “The tranqs better be here, or you’re all dead meat.”
“They’re here,” Pritchard says, irritably. For both their sakes, he hopes that it’s Jack at the trigger.
“What you got, big guy?” It’s an invitation, as well as a question. He might say things here that he wouldn’t say to the techs. “You don’t look too good.”
“It hurts. Help me.”
Rumlow takes a deep breath. He considers calling for Pierce. He always considers it, and never does it, because he’s damned if he can’t handle this. Pierce never says anything, just talks. He’s got power, but he hasn’t got the connection that Rumlow so jealously guards (perhaps too jealously, but nobody here can claim to be an authority on what’s ethically and psychologically healthy).
“What, and you’re just gonna stand there and bitch about it?”
The Asset glares at him, and Rumlow bares teeth in a smile. The stony-faced frown is a front; when he starts looking haunted around the edges is when it’s time to back away. Now it’s safe to do the opposite. “Let me see.”
He takes the metal hand in one of his - keeping the other close to a weapon - and inspects it, flexing the fingers, running a cursory thumb up the inside of the forearm and feeling the plates shift slightly on their fixings. He flicks away a streak of blood and sighs.
“Looks fine to me. What a mess. Alright.” With a flick of the wrist, the stun stick is at the Asset’s throat. Rumlow uses that as leverage to back him up until he hits the chair and sits with a crash, and stands over his legs. Now he’s paying attention. “You got a choice, big guy….”
“Excuse me?” Rumlow tilts his chin up. There’s a little smile on his face, showing small white teeth. A smile that’s just that tiny bit cheeky, roguish - but his eyes are cold and hard.
“What choice?” he says quietly. “You’re gonna do it, whatever I say.” It seems to strike him as funny, irrepressibly so, and he chuckles. “You’re just - haha - gonna do it....” His shoulders twitch, and he starts to laugh .
“Oh Jesus,” Pritchard whispers, and Jack tells her to shut the fuck up.
Rumlow’s knuckles turn white over the switch but he doesn’t go for the shock. He rolls his tongue in his mouth, takes a deep breath, and marshals his fear into a tight hard knot. Because he is afraid. There’s no getting away from that.
“You’re wrong,” he snaps. The laughter fades but the smile stays, just about. “You do have a choice. The choice is - you get wiped again, or you don’t. You sit back and let ‘em make you forget we even had this conversation, then go out and do your job… or you shut your fucking trap and behave, then go out and do your job. How about that?”
The Asset regards him for a long moment. There’s definitely somebody home, and if Rumlow is honest, he prefers that to the china-doll obedience they get when they fuck with the guy’s brain too hard. Even if it means he’s a handful.
“Oh, I forgot. There’s a third one.” He indicates behind him. “You take a needle full of sedatives to the ass and then get wiped, and wake up on a rooftop with a gun in your hand not knowing how you got there.”
They continue their staring match. He can sense Jack getting ready to act.
“Why do you care?”
“Why do I care?” Rumlow presses the stun stick into his jaw. “You just took out three technical personnel, dragged me from a high-level meeting it’s taken me weeks to prepare for, had the balls to sass me to my face, and might still let one of Hydra’s enemies get away if you don’t get your shit together. And it’s my job to make sure you do your job. Understand?”
“Yes sir.” He looks like he’s just remembered who Rumlow is, which might well be the case. “Do you promise?”
“What, that you won’t get wiped if you behave? Well, I -.”
“Do you promise ?” The snarling defiance is faltering, weak. It seems like he’s demanding, but he’s pleading. His metal hand curls, betraying him, and he winces a little. “If I do, they won’t - you won’t….”
“Sure. You be good, you go back in the freezer as you are. Sound like a deal?”
The Asset nods. It’s the left hand that he offers up. Rumlow doesn’t take it, in case it’s a trap (once that grip is on you, you’re not getting away).
“Christ,” he mutters to Jack, as soon as they’re clear. “I shouldn’t bargain with him.”
Jack ponders it, silently, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.
“I guess he’s stopped punching people to death - people who aren’t on the hit list. Assuming we don’t fuck this one up."
“We won’t. He won’t.”
“I like your optimism, sweetheart.”
Jack snorts, and he finds it adorable enough to have to look away quickly. “C’mon. He never fucks up with you around. I’m still waiting on that bookcase.”
Chapter 19: Insight
He’s always felt privileged, in a way, that the breaking was already done so many decades ago. He’s on the other side, on the rebuild. The wipes don’t do much to change that. He won’t deny that it’s been hard work, but he was only re-applying what they should have been doing all along, reforging their weapon to be all the stronger.
Which is why he can’t keep the look off his face, when Pierce tells him he won’t be on the handling team.
“With all respect, sir….”
“It’s a pivotal moment for us,” Pierce says over him, “and I’m sure you’re aware of that, Commander. I’m also sure that you’re better placed elsewhere. There are,” he shakes his head a little, “so many variables, even more so now. I want to be certain that all of them are under control, and I need you to make that happen. I need your input.”
Rumlow looks up, sets his jaw, prepares to do something that could land him in front of a firing squad when this is all over.
“Then you’re getting my input, Mr Secretary. Fury is out of the way. The Asset is out of the freezer and ready to go - but you put him against Rogers, all you’re gonna have is a good-looking fistfight. We already got our asses kicked once and we don’t wanna make a scene again. We take Rogers down at range before he can try anything else. We send the Asset after Widow. And Carter, and Hill, and whoever else he might have talked into his little rebellion.”
Pierce is silent for a long moment. “You’ve seen what he’s capable of. What makes you think he wouldn’t win?”
Rumlow doesn’t quite know how to answer that, other than he knows . “They’re evenly matched. But the Asset is point-and-shoot… he can handle a drag-out fight, but he’s not meant for it. Rogers is the opposite.” He shrugs. “It might be suicide, y'know. But for which one? I couldn’t tell you.”
“Sounds like you’ve got rather attached,” Pierce says, mildly enough that it sounds judgemental as hell.
“I’m his handler,” Rumlow grinds out. He wants a painkiller, he wants to slap the sense into Rogers and Pierce both, and he wants his weapon to be used properly. That’s all. “You’ve trusted me for years to look after him. Zero mission failures. Only a couple staff casualties. What’s different now? I know you think we can do without him. But not yet.”
“And you’re absolutely correct, on both counts.” If Pierce is angry, he doesn’t show any sign of it, and that’s why Brock has never really trusted him. “But just as I still need him, I still need you.”
He’s being given The Speech, and all he can do is nod and acquiesce. He just hopes that the Asset won’t break down without him.
He hadn’t wanted to undermine Pierce’s authority, and he really didn’t want to do anything that looked like arguing. So he bit his tongue, and stood there while the Asset looked at him with that oh shit, I’m in trouble expression he used to find amusing. He had to turn his back on the wipe. He didn’t want to see it. He knows nothing can completely shake Rogers from the guy’s head, especially now they’ve had proper contact. It was a mistake. Pierce doesn’t go back on a choice. Rumlow just might, if it means getting a better deal.
He still feels like he could have talked the Asset down, but it’s too late now. He’s got his own shit to deal with, and it’s still a good few floors above him… and the silence over the radio tells him that something is very, very wrong.
“Come in, control. Is J… uh, any agents down?”
“All down. No life signs, sir.”
Fuck it , Rumlow thinks. Crouched at the top of a stairwell with a gun, his ammunition running low, the offices where he used to prowl like the king of the jungle deserted, his Asset on a suicide mission (wasted, both him and Rogers) and his best agents dead at the Widow’s hands. The losses - Jack, especially Jack - like missing teeth leaving raw and stinging gaps. What’s left?
Fuck Pierce. Let him die. Fuck Hydra. The thought comes on suddenly, so suddenly it frightens him. Near the window, he hears a turbo-charged bellow and the helicarriers start to slowly shift, towards the building. That scares him even more, so he thinks it louder. Fuck Hydra. It’s strangely liberating. He’s killed good men and bad in the name of a flawlessly executed new world, which looks like it’s about to go down the tubes because they couldn’t keep track of one superhuman, let alone two. Order comes through pain. He’s had his pain - oh, he’s had all of it. Now where’s his order?
Brock takes a deep breath, snarls “Fuck it,” at his approaching doom, and runs.
Chapter 20: Results
“How the fuck did you survive?” is the first thing she says when she opens the door, followed by “You’re lucky my husband’s on a business trip.”
“Or what?” Brock props his arm on the door frame. “You’d kick me to the curb? Huh?”
She scowls at him. He looks out of place in this picket-fence neighbourhood - like a tramp was let loose in a military surplus store - and he loves it.
“Fine, come in,” she concedes. “Take your boots off. I got new carpets while you were failing at bringing some order to the....”
“Hey,” Brock says, a warning growl - because he’d take mere failure , if it meant he could have kept Jack. Failure would be nothing more than an annoyance.
Pritchard pulls a couple of mugs out of a cupboard in her spotless kitchen. “SHIELD will be looking for you.”
“SHIELD thinks I’m dead,” Brock tells her. “Unofficially… well, I’m sure there’s a few who could get on the case. But you wanna be the one who decides to go after me? I’m not going without a fight.”
“Yeah,” she replies, noncommittally. “Coffee?”
“Sure. But you’re right - we fucked up.” He stretches out his legs, sighs. “What a world. What a world to raise a kid into.”
He meets her eyes as she puts down a mug in front of him, and her hand trembles ever so slightly. It’s not fear of him, though. She’s never been scared of him.
“Where is he?” he asks, quietly.
The tell-tale sounds can already be heard from behind the kitchen island. The child appears without prompting, and raises his hands for his mother to pick him up. Pritchard carries him over and deposits him beside Brock.
The boy isn’t scared of him either. Brock grins and introduces himself - “I’m someone your mama used to work with,” - and is met with curious staring. “What’s his name?”
“James,” Pritchard says, and Brock nearly chokes on his coffee.
“Fuck - really?”
“Language,” she hisses. “Yes - I think it’s a perfect name.”
“You’re f- you’re damn right it’s perfect.” The child has thick dark hair and blue-grey eyes, and it might be his imagination, but he can already see shades of James’s father coming through. “Anything weird yet? He… I dunno, flipped a car or anything?”
“No. The doctor says he’s very healthy for a kid of his age. I’m gonna wait and see. Test his blood for it if I can.”
“What a miracle.” Brock smirks and lets James pull at a cord on his jacket. “You’re special, kid. You don’t know it, but you are.”
“He is,” Pritchard echoes, with pride. “So when are you leaving?”
It’s rude, perhaps, but Brock knows he’s putting them in danger by visiting. “I had nowhere else to go, alright? But, let’s say a couple days. I just need to book a flight. And then you’ll never see me again. Promise.”
“How are you gonna fly?”
“I know people who know people,” he says, leaving it at that. “And I know people who know people who might know…” he points at James, who is trying his best to climb over the back of the sofa, “where daddy’s hiding.”
Chapter 21: Intervention
“This place is a fucking dump,” Brock declares, looking around at the sad excuse for an apartment. “It’s like a conspiracy theorist had a baby with my trailer-trash uncle. And the baby was Russian. For some fucking reason.”
He kicks over a stack of magazines. Bottles clink, and dust puffs into the stagnant air. The drip of water is loud in the sink.
“Still.” He shrugs. “It’s kind of what I’d expect from Hydra’s finest.”
“Heil Hydra,” the man on the floor responds. The shaded windows throw a little light over his hunched-over figure, but not much.
“ Fuck Hydra,” Brock says firmly. He flips over some of the papers on the sideboard. “What, they didn’t take everything from you too? Huh? Use you up and leave you to rot in some godforsaken nowhere town while they pretend the world is gonna change?”
He gets a baleful glare. “What do you want?”
“Doesn’t matter, does it? It’s already gone.” He sighs, contains his anger. “Mr December 16 1991 already fucking took it. Didn’t he?”
Karpov sniffs, still damp and bloodshot. “He knew it was here.”
“Was that all he asked? A fucking mission report? Why would he want that?”
“I don’t know.”
“And for that matter - why didn’t you give it to us? I went years trying not to get my ass killed for looking at that frosty bastard the wrong way. Years! Why do you hand over a weapon like that without the fucking manual?”
He might be ranting, but he’s got Karpov’s attention. “You were… the handler?”
“Yeah, and I’ve still got all my fucking limbs. Surprise, right? We’re a minority, buddy - the ones who made it. Who survived. And only because he got taken away from us. Not the other way round.”
“You are trying to get him back?”
“Ah, you saw right through me.” Brock chuckles, scuffs the tattered carpet with his boot. “I got a soft spot, what can I say?”
“This Zemo… I don’t know what he wants. But I don’t think you can stop him.”
“Yeah, well - that’s your opinion.” He takes out his sidearm. “Look, I gotta get going. But is there something I should do before I hit the road?”
Karpov licks his lips. His eyes go from the weapon, to Brock, and back. He knows this is how it ends, because this is the ending that Hydra writes for everyone.
“Tell you what,” Brock says. “You wanna do it, you do it your fucking self. But…” he reaches into his pocket, takes a card, lays it with a click on the table. “If not, you’re gonna want a new address. And I promise: go here, I’ll bring him to you. Nothing like a reunion, right?”
He doesn’t say anything. Brock nods, unsurprised, and leaves, skirting his way around the crashed car outside.
Chapter 22: Balancing books
“ Freight car ,” punctuates the crash of the containment chamber giving way… and then there’s silence, thick and potent, and one can only assume that it worked. “ Soldier? ”
“ Ready to comply. ”
Rogers and Wilson must be about two seconds from busting in to take him down, but Zemo doesn’t stir. He’s enraptured by those eyes - by something in them which promises everything he’s been hoping for. At least, that’s what he seems to be seeing.
Brock moves, deliberately, and Zemo turns, proving that he’s got some sense after all - still alert to threats from the environment.
With a word, the Asset cracks him across the head and he drops like a dead pigeon from a chimney.
“See, that guy, “ Brock indicates the prone body, bending to pull the book away, “I’m pretty sure he planned this down to a T. But, what do you know? Sometimes life gives you surprises. Right, big guy?”
The Asset has been living as Barnes for too long, perhaps - but then again, he was living under Hydra’s control for a lot longer. He doesn’t spare a glance at Zemo.
“I know, I know. I’m late. But you made yourself a real bitch to find. Romania? Who’d have fucking thought? You even know how to speak Romanian?”
“I learned,” is his response. “Sir.”
“Ah, I’m messing with ya. I know that you can -” and that’s the moment that Rogers comes charging out of the shadows and the Asset tenses like a spring and Brock can only throw himself between them because he’s trained to handle both but not both at once. “Whoa, Cap!” He feels the Asset bump against his shoulder but Rogers steps back instinctively on command, averting a crisis. “He doesn’t know you, ok? He doesn’t know you....”
“ Rumlow ,” Rogers says, as if they’re facing off at high noon over some stolen cattle and a murdered father figure.
“This guy,” Wilson mutters from the sidelines, wisely not getting involved beyond throwing some shade.
“Yeah, this guy.” Brock nudges the Asset backwards with his elbow. “The guy who’s standing between you and the tearing of a bunch of new assholes.”
“What are you doing here?” Rogers demands.
“Apart from saving your fucking skins? Same as you. I wanted to see what they were gonna do with Barnes. Maybe let you know I was back in town.”
“You did that plenty in Lagos.”
“That? That was just for some cash. I got to wear that exoskeleton myself, y'know, one time….”
“Well at least you weren’t wearing it then,” Rogers bites back, clearly wishing that Brock was the one catapulted into a ball of death and masonry instead of watching from a safe distance. “Are you gonna run away again?”
Brock spreads his hands. “I can’t. Because the second I do, you’re gonna get your ass beat. I’m not kidding. Your little pal back here doesn’t like people threatening his handlers. That’s right,” because Rogers is getting that sad-puppy look he gets every time his focus is on Barnes, “I’m the poor fuck in charge of the Fist of Hydra. And with this,” he holds up the book, “I got a feeling I can do a whole lot better than normal.”
“Give me that,” Rogers snaps on impulse, grabbing for it. The Asset growls and lunges and Brock yanks him back by his shirt.
He complies, to Rogers’ obvious distress, and stands down, side-eyeing Brock.
“I know, I’m sorry. But you gotta behave. And we’ve gotta get out of here.”
“Not so fast,” Rogers says. He’s already got his hands on his hips. Brock sighs.
“I said we . I don’t know what your plan is, Cap, but this time I’m gonna help you. Because, let’s face it - you need all the help you can get.”
Chapter 23: Manual
“You wanna learn about your weapon,” he holds up the book, “you read the manual. You wanna really learn about your weapon? you use it in the field.”
Wilson nods, tight-lipped. Brock clears his throat loudly, to prevent a staring match getting started. Rogers has wisely stayed out of the way, gone to the other room to sit and stare out of the window. Watching for hostiles, he says. Brooding over his boyfriend, more likely. Brock has to be relieved for both of them; they both want Barnes to be safe, and he’s nowhere safer than under their control.
“I know this is gonna be uncomfortable for you,” he says to Wilson. “But you better just shut up and get used to it.”
That at least raises a smirk, and gets Wilson looking at him properly.
“Order only comes through pain, right?”
Brock will admit he’s severely underestimated the guy’s ability to take the piss, and he likes that.
“Hey, I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. Order - real order - comes easily to nobody. At some point, you gotta take what you’d rather not.”
“Uh-huh,” Sam says, looking as unconvinced as possible, and gestures at their companion. “I guess that’s what this is all about.”
“Honestly? Don’t ask me what they were thinking with this. It was way back, different time….”
“Different time, same assholes.” He nods, waits for Brock to retort, and when nothing is forthcoming adds “And those assholes wrote a book."
“They did,” Brock confirms, opening the notebook and in no way denying that he’s one of the aforementioned. Wilson doesn’t have to like him; he just has to learn. “Ok, pay attention. These are the words Zemo was using. They trigger a suggestible state; works every time. He’ll stay like that until he needs something, or until I give him an order.”
“It’s fucking creepy,” Wilson says, under his breath.
“It is, but you don’t gotta whisper. He might be able to hear you, but it’s not like he’s gonna care. You could let a weapon off six inches from his head and he’s not gonna care. Well, I could. You’d get your fuckin’ face smashed in. And that’s what we need to work on.”
“If they wiped his memory, how come he still knows you?”
“I don’t know.” Even with the book weighing heavy in his hands, there’s a lot he still doesn’t know. Some of it died with Bates, some with the handler before him, and the one before her… all the way back to when their records were blunt pencils on cheap paper and so easily destroyed by fire, flood, age - or not even made at all. It’s quite possible that the one who knows most about the capability of the Winter Soldier is standing in front of them, ready to comply. “But I’m glad he does. Otherwise I’d have been dead about twenty times over.”
“Do I need to learn Russian?”
“Eh, if you wanna. Most of this has been translated, and I can help you. He understands English ninety-nine percent of the time, even if he’s not speaking it.”
“And the rest of the time?”
“You can use any fucking language you like, and it won’t make a difference.” Brock grins sharply. Wilson raises an eyebrow. “Now, I’ve been doing this for a few years - so I’m gonna do something really fuckin’ dangerous.”
“Yeah, well don’t get yourself killed. That won’t help us at all.”
It’s obvious that he’s fearful, but he isn’t exactly trying to hide it - just to ride it out, until someone makes a move one way or the other. He still can’t stop the involuntary step back when Brock strides into the Asset’s space.
“C’mon, big guy,” is all he has to say by way of encouragement, before he has his arms full of lethal weapon. “Now, this is the part,” he speaks over his shoulder to Wilson, whose jaw has just about hit the floor, “where I wish you’d let me put the fucking mask on him, because I am not a fan of having these teeth around here. Right, big guy?” because the Asset - his Asset - is leaning on his shoulder, soft breath on his neck. “I won’t lie to you - it could go south.”
“So why do you still try and do it?”
Brock grins at him, “Why not?” There used to be leather and armour in the way, but now there’s just a shirt over the same lithe bulk that he’s used to. It takes the majority of his self-control not to run his hands over the muscles, to feel just what Barnes has been working on since they last met.
“It’s a party trick,” Wilson says with a snort, clearly hoping that he’s not expected to follow suit.
“Say what you like about Hydra, they had the best parties.”
“So, you can just cuddle him?”
Brock opens his mouth to say that it’s not cuddling, but the evidence is weighed against him. “Hey, this took me years .” He’s talking to the dead, here, as well as the living. “You look after your weapon, it’s gonna look after you.”
Chapter 24: Hitting The Fan
“You ready, big guy?” It doesn’t matter what he’s ready for. In this case, it’s meeting an old friend - but it could be anything. He doesn’t decide. He trusts his handler to decide for him.
“ Ready to comply. ” The tension has vanished from his face and body; a slight wariness is there, but it’s natural, controlled; that of a predator rather than prey.
“Good.” Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Rogers fidget and Wilson put a hand on his arm. The captain’s face is drawn, seething. He’s all but grinding his teeth. “Easy, Cap. He’s ok with us, he knows that. And I’d rather you didn’t fuck it up. Come and stand over here.”
There’s some internal battle going on; Rogers would rather kick him in the balls than listen to his orders but also wants to see Barnes safe. Brock knows which part will win - and sure enough, he gets heavily to his feet and stands opposite them, hands on his hips, glaring.
“I know this is tough for you, but don’t say anything just yet. Ok?”
He nods, which is what Brock was hoping for.
“Ok.” He turns his attention to the one who doesn’t want to stab him at this very moment. “You see this guy over here? This is Steve Rogers. You know him?”
“I know him.” The frown appears; he’s thinking it through, and this time the memories are there for him to fetch - albeit seen through the lens of Hydra’s programming. “I know - this is a target, a - I must have - have -” his eyes widen, and he grabs at Brock, slipping into Russian, “ failed, did I - he’s still alive, I - tell me, I failed my mission? He fell, was he -? ”
“Shh, big guy.” Brock lets his shoulder be taken in a crushing metal grip, so he can hold on to the arm. “You haven’t failed. Mission priorities changed and nobody told you, that’s all. Steve Rogers is no longer a target. He’s an ally.” The Asset is gripping him like he’s a rope hanging off a cliff, but at least he’s listening. “He will not hurt you.”
He hears Rogers say ‘damn right’ in a furious whisper.
“ Yes sir, understood sir .” A pause, and then “he’s my friend.” It’s not particularly a question. His hands relax. Brock grimaces and flexes his shoulder.
“Ok Cap, come over here. And for fuck’s sake don’t confuse him,” because he knows what the first thing out of Rogers’ mouth might well be, and they can’t afford that.
Thankfully, Rogers seems to get the message. “Hey there.” His voice is cracked, unnatural. The Asset eyes him suspiciously - the most prominent memory, perhaps, being the one where they’re beating each other to a pulp. Brock watches carefully, ready to intervene, since Rogers is raising a hand and laying it on the Asset’s face, stroking his cheek -
A flinch and a snarl. “Don’t touch his neck,” Brock says instantly, though he can’t blame Rogers for trying.
“I’m sorry,” Rogers says gently, keeping his resentment in check. He’s not nearly as good at it as Wilson. He draws his hand back.
“I mean, I can order him to let you do it, but -.”
“We’re not forcing him to do anything,” Rogers declares, which is expected, but he can’t resist; he’s getting into the same space, wanting to touch, taking the Asset’s flesh hand and drawing him in although he’s tense and rigid, not trusting in the slightest. Brock can see Rogers fighting back tears. It saddens him a little.
“He’s not gonna hurt you, soldier,” and Rogers actually gives a tiny cut-off sob at that, and - not too abruptly, thank goodness, otherwise he’d lose his head - wraps his arms around the Asset’s waist.
There’s a moment where the Asset stays frozen, but then some deep-buried sense memory underneath it all, untouched by Hydra’s work, slowly makes him soften. He leans on Rogers, who hugs him close and runs a hand through his hair.
“That’s great,” Brock says, “that’s nice to see.” He feels in his pocket, checking that the contents are there, then barks out a single word.
Rogers at least has the decency to look surprised when he’s suddenly on his knees with a metal arm around his neck and a weapon at his head. Wilson jumps forward but Brock is faster, hitting him with a good jolt to the spine so he staggers and falls, twitching. By the time he’s managed to roll over, he has Brock’s sidearm keeping him at bay. His hands go up, slowly and reluctantly.
“Bucky,” Rogers says, predictably. “Please… Buck, come on….”
“Sorry, Cap,” and Brock is sorry, at least a little. It always hurts to have to betray Rogers, no matter how pretty he looks every time.
“Please, you remember me….”
“He does.” Brock lets that sink in. “You’re his friend. He’s doing this for your own good, and I gotta tell you,” because Rogers looks on the verge of doing something stupid, “he will not hesitate to shoot. Ok? Probably won’t kill you. But it’ll hurt like a bitch.”
Rogers’ expression clearly says ‘bring it’, expecting a hell of a fight. Brock isn’t going to give him the satisfaction.
“Take him down.”
Whatever Rogers was planning is swiftly made redundant as he hits the floor face-first. The Asset stamps on the back of his neck to keep him there and fires twice in quick succession.
Even Brock can’t suppress a flinch. Wilson looks pained - anyone would, watching their buddy get nailed in the back of the knees - but can’t do a thing, even as the Asset drags Rogers to the empty frame where the window used to be and flings him out.
From the sound of it, he hits something on the way down. Possibly a few things. There’s a crash, and silence.
“And that’s our head start,” Brock says, motioning the Asset back to his side and keeping his weapon on Wilson, just in case.
“Motherfucker,” Wilson says, with a tinge of admiration. “You gonna do me next?”
Brock grins at him and takes the cuffs out of his pocket. “Now, why would I do that to you?”
Chapter 25: Safehouse
Brock isn’t expecting much when he knocks; so much so that the shiver of the blinds and the clunk of the locks makes him jump a little. The door cracks open, just a sliver, enough to reveal a single sceptical eye in the light of the street lamps.
“You have what you promised?” The man’s breath is still edged with spirits, but the eye looks a lot healthier. He seems to have rediscovered his will to live.
“All that, and a whole lot more,” Brock shoots him a grin. “How about you let us in? I’m freezing my ass off out here.”
“You have another guest,” Karpov mumbles, as Brock extracts his two charges from the car. Wilson comes first, still half-conscious, deposited in a heap on the floor of the living room. “This wasn’t in the deal.”
“It wasn’t not in the deal,” Brock counters. “So sue me if I had to improvise."
Karpov is about to say something else, but a tall shadow blocks the light from the hallway and his words stutter out like a candle-flame.
“ Soldat ,” he breathes, soft and reverent. As if he’s not sure whether it’s a dream.
The Asset barely moves, just scrutinises him. It would be a shame to lose Karpov so soon - but if it goes tits-up right now, there’s nothing Brock can do.
“ Do you remember me? ” Karpov is reaching out his hands, coaxing, hopeful. Brock figures that, even if there was noise and mess, he could make Wilson help him with clean-up and have time to get moving before anyone in this shithole of a neighbourhood called the cops.
In a stride, the Asset has his face buried in Karpov’s shoulder, knocking the breath out of him.
“Oh,” Karpov says, as if surprised he’s not dead - but his hands come up to wrap around their perfect weapon, hanging on tight. “ You do, I know you did… come here, my little bear cub, my pet… .” Brock is a little surprised to see a tear slide down the older man’s cheek, his endearments lost to the crux of the Asset’s metal shoulder. Nothing that Karpov wrote, decades ago, ever let slip this depth of emotion. The Winter Soldier programme was satisfactory. The ‘experiments’ - whatever they were - were unsatisfactory. This, Brock thought, was a man who could have spent ten days partying in a mansion full of coke and Russian supermodels, pronounced it as fulfilling requirements , and handed in the paperwork on time.
“ You still know me, Soldier, you still know me, don’t you? ”
“Adorable,” Brock says, earning an almost reproachful look. “No, I mean it. He really likes you, huh?”
“This is how it should be,” Karpov declares. He tucks back a strand of the Asset’s hair, where it’s escaped from its tie. “Like a dog, a good soldier - take care of him, give him praise when he is good, scold him when he is bad… he comes around to you. He will listen. He will know what will happen if he does not. Isn’t that right, my darling ?”
“ Yes sir .”
Brock has never heard Karpov say so much. After a long moment he steps back, letting his hands fall from the Asset’s face and wiping his eyes.
“Ok. We can stay for one night here. Then we should move.”
“Agreed.” Brock bends down to Wilson. “If we even have that long. I kneecapped Rogers, but it’s not like that’s gonna stop him coming after us.”
“Rogers…” Karpov must recognise the name, although it doesn’t seem to bother him much. “Is this his friend? Who is this n-”
“His name is Sam Wilson,” Brock interrupts firmly. “And unlike us, he’s a good guy. Right, Sammy?"
“Nobody but my momma calls me Sammy,” Wilson says, alert and stretching against the cuffs. He must have been awake for a while; wise enough not to interrupt Karpov’s little moment. “But yeah. This one of your Hydra buddies?”
“In a way,” Brock admits with a shrug. “He was a handler, like me. How you feeling?”
“Like somebody knocked me out and shoved me in the trunk of a car.”
“Bullshit, I didn’t put you in the trunk.” Brock can tell that he’s ok - and he should be; they haven’t hurt him at all yet, by their standards.
“Well excuse me for being unconscious.” He accepts Brock’s help to get onto the sofa. “Do you think you can get away from Steve?”
“No. But I think it’ll take him a while to catch up. Until then,” Brock indicates the room, “make yourself comfortable.”